Recently my father composed and posted a letter to his seven scattered children, a formal letter containing the sort of news that makes common relationships suddenly formal, that strikes life itself with a grave formality and contemplation.

I read the letter. I learned his news. I did not deny the news, but allowed myself to experience it. I suffered the news to consume me with its implications. And in the end—precisely because of that news—I realized what a genuine, holy, consoling gift my father had been bequeathing me all the days of my life, though I had not known the gift nor its perdurable power until that letter, this news, and this, the forty-third year of my maturity.

My father had been setting me free.

He is nearly 70. Threescore years and ten. He is “Walter,” as was his father before him—as am I, the oldest of his children. And I sign myself a “junior” always, in every public place, to honor our common name. “There are two of us,” I say with my signature. “When you see me, you see evidence of him; and I shall, however long he lives, however long I live thereafter, be his junior.”

When he was much younger he used to brush his hair into a peculiar swirl at the peak of his forehead—a brown cone fixed front like a miner’s lamp. For me that swirl was as needful and as comforting as a nightlight, because it was ever the first sign of my father’s presence. There were summer afternoons when he would take me shopping, when I would lose myself among the comic books, lose all sense of time, and then look up to find my father gone. My heart would begin to buzz like a bee in a bottle and my limbs go limp with panic. I would stare down the aisles of the alien store, struggling not to cry. I would scan the top of the crowd, the ...

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