The Acrobat & The Apocalypse

By Lindsay Sanwald

An early draft of a larger endeavor, about my past, this present, our future…

The day I cremated my father, I rode the front row of the Cyclone. This is not a metaphor. After witnessing him burn from my living room couch, I got on the F Train to Coney Island, waited in line to sit upfront, and took the roller coaster plunge alone. I like to ride grief into great celebration–a legacy I inherited from an Acrobat.

I was in Brooklyn, my father’s body was in Fort Lauderdale. I had already said my proper living “goodbye” alongside a hospital bed a few months earlier. This type of goodbye is rare and holy. I’ve known a couple. It’s a farewell with an infinite echo, the kind you say in extreme living awareness, knowing full well that it is likely the last time you will ever see one another again. This is the definitive disappearing act, and I must give my applause to the magician.

It didn’t seem right to get on a plane just to push a button on an oven. But I had watched enough Six Feet Under to understand the importance of bearing witness to a body without breath. To see the corpse is to confirm the proof that our shape, without its song and soul, is but a stone cold silhouette. Where does the invisible everything go, and what is this abandoned house we leave behind?

Modern funeral homes have the technology to Skype you into the crematorium, but the Internet was down that morning, so I had to do my post-mortem gazing and grief via Smartphone. These days–pandemic days–I FaceTime daily to keep in touch with the living. But back in 2013, that feature was still relatively new, and I had yet to try it.

The very first time I ever FaceTimed was with my dead father.

Our final phone call was a strange frame of beauty–concentrated, metallic, and mute. A kind stranger in Florida called Funeral Director dutifully positioned her iPhone toward the still life feed on a computer screen. I felt like a security guard in a remote booth watching a small monitor of blue-hued surveillance footage. Gray stillness, concrete contemplation. I saw an unfamiliar old man wrapped in a white sheet like a newborn baby–my father, the Acrobat. The only thing that moved in this digital painting was the tail of a dark curtain circling the gurney. It danced back and forth from some unknown breeze, teasing a flickering glimpse of hot blue light from whatever lied on the other side. I remember noticing it and thinking it might be a ghost.

In this present era, I wonder how many more will get to know the spooky peace of a long-distance phoned-in funeral service. Guiding Light Cremations in Fort Lauderdale did their very best to be hospitable. I was told I could take as much time as I needed. How much time is needed to do something like this? Suddenly it felt like performance. Seated alone on my couch, I felt the spotlight pressure of presence. A thick clock tick. Time seemed both irrelevant and in short supply. I gazed. I waited. I may have even grown impatient. My emotions stayed restrained. It was a staring contest with death I knew I couldn’t win. I was antsy to make it meaningful, but also to move it along.

I was the sole attendant. The soul, attending. The ghost sang Paul Simon: “If you’ll be my bodyguard, I can be your long lost pal.” Mom never figured out how to forgive my father for what he did; big brother didn’t care to see him this way; and all the rest on the paternal side were already dead. My then soon-to-be-ex-wife was away in Nashville. I can’t remember if I felt abandoned or glad about it. I often feel abandoned. I just as often feel glad. I am both burdened and unburdened by the absence of family–a lone and loyal orphan left to do as I wish.

I had a decade of practice being the only family member looking after my dad from afar. He abandoned us, and then everybody abandoned him–save me. Maybe this was my earliest training in ministry–several years spent on the receiving end of his manic phone calls, calmly and compassionately listening to a raving homeless man–the man responsible for raising me. I learned to ignore the endless unknown calls when I didn’t have the energy to speak with him. The morning he passed, I rolled my eyes at a 954 number on my caller ID, letting it ring while I silently huffed to myself, “Not now, dad.” I waited some hours before listening to the voicemail.

I was underground on an express train, the green 4 going downtown. A nervous detective spoke: “Hey Lindsay… can you please give me a call back… it’s in reference to your father.” I was in a fast moving verdant underworld, no signal on the subway to make a call, forced to be in the anxious unknowing from 59th street all the way to City Hall. I weighed a rational thought: he’s either back in jail or dead. I prayed, with gentle guilt, for the latter–for its liberation.

“And I may be obliged to defend, Every love, every ending, Or maybe there’s no obligations now, Maybe I’ve a reason to believe, We all will be received, In Graceland.”

The morning of the cremation, I transformed my living room into a temple. I covered the mirrors, I set out pictures, I lit candles, I played Laurie Anderson, Led Zeppelin, and songs from Paul Simon’s Graceland–portions of my patriarchal musical inheritance. I controlled every aesthetic, up until the unexpected FaceTime. That wasn’t part of my program. Take as much time as you need.

Eventually, I must have interrupted the strange sacred surveillance with an “Okay.” I don’t have a memory of what I saw after that. Only that I decided it was over, and that it was time to pay tribute with play. I had a pilgrimage planned: from cremation to Coney Island, a renegade repass at an amusement park to honor my adrenaline junkie sire. If grief is by nature a stomach dropping plummet, then I wanted to be intentional and celebratory about it–abandoned and glad. I escaped my home for the Cyclone.

Coney Island’s historic Cyclone–perhaps the most famous roller coaster in the country–was built in 1927. I love imagining the possibility that my New Yorker grandparents and great-grandparents enjoyed the same wooden whip, rattle, and thrill of my favorite Brooklyn summertime landmark. Adrenaline is ancestral. When my dad’s dad died, he used a tiny inheritance to buy a new motorcycle–the fastest Kawasaki on the market at the time. He told my disapproving mother, “Pop would have wanted me to have this bike.” In some way, I rewrote this suspicious script, telling myself that my rebel maker would have wanted me to celebrate his life and death from the front row seat of a roller coaster.

I made the entire day a ritual of fun. What I was really doing, I think, was an attempt to resurrect the lost innocent child–both his and mine–with carnival and cotton candy. High-speed grief followed by high-speed joy–an up-and-down in honor of my magical mendicant parent, a gymnastic dad who loved falling from heights.

He was born out of breath–a severely asthmatic child till the age of ten. His mother would medicate him with epinephrine–literal adrenaline shots–until he figured out how to get this drug in great supply on his own. He self-treated his young lungs with daredevil stunts. Wild high-dive flips, high-speed motorcycles, and gymnastic feats were his go-to shots of prana. He had a knack for breaking the rules and getting into trouble, for walking around on his hands and falling head-over-heels in love. Anything to feel the pure shock of being Alive!

In high school, his talent for tumbling attracted my mother, a 15-year-old cheerleader who wanted to learn how to do a backhandspring. God bless the flips that brought my parents together and somersaulted me into being. It wasn’t without injury, but what life is? After touring around with a rock band for a while, dad settled down and became a professional gymnastics coach. The same year I was born, he fulfilled his life-long dream to open up his own school: Satori Gymnastics Academy. He would have been around my age then, Dante’s age–“Midway upon the journey of our life… Speak will I of the other things I saw there…”¹

I grew up on a trampoline, learning the rhythm of leaps, up and down, up and down. I wasn’t alone. So many young kids were raised under Satori’s roof. And it’s plain to see why so many kids loved Coach Kerry–he was the real-life Peter Pan, a mischievous boy who didn’t age, who could fly and teach you how if you were brave enough to think happy thoughts. Satori was the island of Neverland, Kerry’s temple of permanent childhood.

It was named after the Zen Buddhist concept of “sudden enlightenment”–what my dad claimed to have felt while flipping through the air. He was never a formal Buddhist, or a religious man by any means, yet his life unintentionally rendered him into a kind of accidental renunciant. After 30 years of being a householder, he departed from our family, shuttered his business, and set out on his own.

In his later years, he didn’t always “stick the landing,” as a gymnast might say. He did love, after all, being upside down. A series of unfortunate circumstances cornered him into prison and homelessness. I don’t even really know what happened. It feels like whiplash. I turn my head quickly, and suddenly it hurts and burns. I grew up with the coolest guy on the block–the everlasting teenager popping wheelies and handstands, taking us to concerts and theme parks, showing us how to get into “good trouble.” Then Abracadabra, he was gone.

He disappeared from home the summer before sixth grade. Eleven-year-old me knew that infidelity and alcohol both had something to do with it, but the mental illness took its time to bloom. My mom went into an emotional coma. We lost our house. I hated that part more than any other. Space shrunk into a 2-bedroom townhome with a woman scorned, her fury a hell I had to occupy. I cried in a grimy new bathtub lamenting the loss of my big backyard. The grass isn’t greener on the other side. The grass is gone. The coming of age. I become a bleeding woman alongside a weeping woman, and learn that love is blood and tears.

“Strong wind destroy our home. Many dead, tonight it could be you. Strong wind, strong wind. Many dead, tonight it could be you. And we are homeless, homeless. Moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake.”²

I escape by becoming an overachiever. Straight A’s got me attention, got me into college–a place my parents and those who came before never had access to. Flash forward to my first year in a dorm room… My dad is calling me from a homeless shelter in New Jersey. How? It sounds like an impossible twist in his surreal story. The Greeks say, Count no man happy until the day he dies. Mental illness took its time to bloom.

My family coordinated a plan to get him down to Florida–where it was warmer, where he might be more welcome, but he never managed to land back on his feet. He went from handstands to Hanged Man. His last ten years were spent living on and off the streets, in and out of jail. He was in a halfway house when he took his last gasp. He died the day before his 63rd birthday, as though he were dutifully on time for his own reincarnation.

Many people extended help and charity toward my father–a place to sleep, a part-time job–but more often than not, he preferred the freedom of not having a boss or a roof over his head. He had a mystical near-death experience a few months before he finally succumbed.

A heart attack… what a phrase. This is what brought me briefly to his bedside after a six year period of estrangement. He did a double take when I entered the room… “Hey, how ya doin’!” thinking I was a nurse at first, and then, “Oh my God, Lindsay!!” His joy redoubled when he saw my brother follow me in, who had been estranged from him for a much longer time. Before we got to the hospital, my big brother treated me to pancakes. Adult children, taking care of one another.

In the IHOP booth my brother describes three areas of his life that he wished were better: his marriage, his music, his job. When my father sees and greets his first born, he spontaneously congratulates him on his marriage, his music, his job. My heart jaw drops in quiet awe. How did he know? God is a gossip.

I caught a quick glimpse of my former athlete dad’s legs, which had become decimated to the width of my arms. His hands trembled. The yellow FALL RISK bracelet on his wrist was a rude reminder of the fact of his life. My brother and I sat bedside, and together the three of us watched Terminator 2: Judgement Day on TV. It was the most meaningful matinee of my life. Hasta la vista, baby. Goodbye, Dad.

Over the course of these couple of hours, I participate in a complete forgiveness–a pure, spontaneous, unspoken, miraculous absolution. I do not know where it comes from. God is a magician. It was so simple. All we had to do to make our father happy was to be his children. How stunningly perfect that we are who we already are. Though we are often amnesiac, that day, I remembered: everything is enough. If there are angels keeping score above, I know that this visit ranks first in my list of holy happenings.

My last living vision of him is a permanent picture of peace… It was late at night. I returned to the hospital, alone, to drop off a few soothing tokens: slim jims and CDs. He was asleep, but stirred awake, turned over, and smiled at me–an infinite echo.

“I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded; not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.”³

On the morning he passed away, my father refused an ambulance–perhaps his sannyasa sense that the mission was complete, and that it was time to move toward “the great journey.” Typically with a death, there is a lot of business that needs to be taken care of, but because my dad in effect became a kind of holy madman beggar, there was hardly anything to manage. No assets, money, personal property or possessions to sort out; hardly any family or friends left to contact; not even an outfit of clothes to dress him in for his cardboard box cremation. He departed us dressed as he was at birth. After tumbling through life, he left without a trace–naked and forgiven.

According to Hindu philosophy, there are four stages of life called Ashramas. The first stage is Brahmacharya (to be a student), followed by Grihastha (to be a householder), then Vanaprashta (to be retired), and finally, Sannyasa (to become a renunciate). “If he reaches this stage, a man will leave his family and all his possessions behind and become a homeless beggar, devoting himself exclusively to his spiritual pursuits.”⁴

As far as I know, my father was not on an intentional spiritual quest, and though his living became quite depraved, I wonder now if he perhaps bore a resemblance to Raikva, the unlikely teacher sought out in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad–a poor, unkempt cart driver with lessons on the vital life force of prana. My dad was a great teacher in his heyday, inspired by his own struggle with the wind. His way is not to be glorified, though I do seek to re-imagine him through these texts as a sacrificed Self compelled by breath.

“The steward respectfully approached a man under a cart scratching his sores and asked: ‘Sir, are you Raikva, the gatherer?’ The man replied: ‘Yes, I am.’ …And this is what Raikva told him. ‘The gatherer, clearly, is the wind. So, when a fire goes out, it is into the wind that it passes; when the sun sets, it is into the wind that it passes; when the moon sets, it is into the wind that it passes; and when water evaporates, it is into the wind that it passes. For it is the wind that gathers all these… The gatherer, clearly, is the breath.”

I can’t breathe… the story of my father’s fight and flight… is a gathering…

This is a memoir in process, but right now there is an urgent sermon unfolding. I write this at a particular moment in history I cannot ignore…

I can’t breathe… George Floyd’s last words… a phrase that lives in vivid volume today as the battle cry of the Black Lives Matter movement, poetically paralleled at present with the COVID-19 pandemic. I can’t breathe… A relentlessly heavy heartache and lung crush. Thick humid grief on grief. Suffocated senseless murder matched with righteous rage.

We watch the cremation of our country from the comfort of the living room couch, on tiny handheld screens. Which is more contagious–the virus or the rebellion? Our confinement and quarantine act as gasoline. Isolated apart, we rush together, flames hungry to eat air, indifferent to infection, longing instead for violent embrace. Everyday at 7pm the church bells ring “Amazing Grace.” Goddamn this guy… he holds a Bible as a prop.

I can’t breathe… a racist respiratory cancer. COVID as molotov cocktail. Insurgency as the only virtue and vaccine. Masks must be worn, and masks must come off. I am not quiet. I am not comfortable. I stand in solidarity with all people of color against all racism (including my own), but clutch my sacred silence like a stuffed animal.

Like a good girl, I’ve been to the streets, I’ve been to jail, I’ve been civil disobedient. But my adolescent activist turned into a musical monk a while back. My protest placard became the punch of tone. I beat my grief on drum kits, guitar strings, and piano keys. My violence is percussive sticks in sync. The constant kick, the stark crash. I have a concussion: I acknowledge that my beloved Rock and Roll is borrowed Black land. Graceland is, after all, Africa sung through a white man.

When I am silent it means I am listening and learning. My silence means I am in worship–waiting for revelation–for Satori, the sudden big bang of a verse. I know that my silence is dangerous… privileged, convenient, complicit, ignorant, oppressive. Still, I am cautious and suspicious of the psychic riot and rot of memes, the white performative absolution on social media for hallucinated masses. We whites are a bunch of show-offs, struggling to show up in the right ways.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

I still stub my toes on popularity contests, people-pleasing, approval, praise, fame, forgiveness. I am guilty, but I cannot congratulate myself for saying so. I cannot find the leadership in the Look at me! posts littering our echo chambers. I am exhausted. We are inexhaustible.

There is a jazz to our jeopardy, a creativity inherent in our vulnerability–both a solo and a medley gathered around the stubborn fact of our own demise. Music is a prophetic weapon wielded against the permanent quiet–a fine tuning that can conquer and collect a piece of time–a piece of truth. Music gives us the constant practice of performing in and out of silence, again and again, endlessly surrendered. Our job as artists and spiritual athletes–insatiable lovers of the infinite–is to carve ourselves into enthusiastic flutes: conduits of breath, holy instruments to be played to the point of being overwhelmed. What song are you willing to die for?

What is due? What can I do? What can be done? What is my life for? What do I want to be when I grow up? Midway upon the journey of my life… am I still allowed to be this casually confused?

“And these?” When an officer arresting Terry Tempest Williams for demonstrating at a nuclear test site asks about the pen and paper lodged between her boot and ankle, she responds, her wrists in handcuffs: “Weapons.”

My mom was the quiet parent. She wanted to be a writer. She became a secretary instead. Her fast moving fingers fed our family all along. I don’t think I appreciated until very recently how historically holy her work was. The ancient practice of transcriber. The listener who knows letters. A hushed officer of language. A modest virtuoso playing piano key punches of alphabet. The musical clatter of a document–ding! I loved the sound of the paper bullet being reloaded, the machinery of ink, the measurement of margins. The typewriter is an engine, a 5-speed stick shift not everyone knows how to drive. The way you’d have to erase a letter–that back slap mystery hammer, how the palimpsest imprint remained. White out. We cannot unwrite how we got here.

Manual transmission. Everyone in my lineage works with their hands. Tailors, typists, bartenders, musicians, masseuse. Today, we are not allowed to touch. How do we stay in love when it is ordained that we stay estranged? How do we endure our own disappearing act?

Mother Earth weeps. My mother is always weeping. Are we not all on the verge of homelessness these days? What happens after democracy dies? Where will we live when the floods and famines arrive? Are we being made to stay at home so as to remember our shared single roof, our families, our lives and how they are to matter? Or are we being evicted from the garden for our mediocre faith and lackluster focus? “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth” (Revelations 3:16).

Post-apocalyptic fiction has moved to current affairs⁷, and the world is on fire. Ready for my confession? I do not mind these perilous pages. I am an apocalypse optimist, and I believe in the creativity of catastrophe. I know we are built for this. I know we are made for this moment. Sorrow may sink us to our seats, but anguish can become the instruction, and it can accelerate our righteous climb.

I have great faith in the drama of endings. I feel a genuine privilege at having a front-row seat for this roller coaster ride, its revelations, and our karmic call of duty to sit, listen, and witness the dying. I have a fondness for the deathbed–its potent downloads of wisdom. Right now, I sense myself a child making peace with a dying parent–Mother Earth in hospice. I pray for her recovery, but marvel at the ancient and inevitable passage of life. Will I write the eulogy, or will I write the resurrection? Or might our honest writing serve as the flare of a rescue mission?

Jesus, the radical savior, has no taste for lukewarm ambivalence. I am often troubled with the guilt that I cannot save the world and might be spit out for giving up. We are dangerously hot, and I confess I might be too icy cold about it. The souls around me–either smoke-choked on anger, paralyzed by panic, or deep-set in convenient denial–do not demonstrate a better response to me. This may be shameful to admit during these code red days of racism, contagion, and climate change, but I think we are gravely mistaken to act as though we are entitled to our survival.

How on earth did we ever come to believe that we are owed this world forever? There is something uncomfortably arrogant to me about our demand to muscle nature and society into the course we see fit for her and us. I, for one, trust that she knows what she is doing, and sense that I have no right to tamper with her temper. How dare I dictate, like some kind of controlling spouse, that she never changes, that she keeps me and us for eternity? Mamma Earth is free to grow hot, to rage, to flood, to kill, to die. How do I care for her without the toddler tantrum of terrestrial want?

Why won’t my parents stay alive for me? Don’t they want to? Where does the invisible everything go, and what is this abandoned house we leave behind? I am hungry for a mother’s lullaby. I fear she sees my father in me. How do I show her and the world that I want to be the hero, and not some vagabond villain? How do I write and remember that I am who I already am? How do I celebrate these cyclones of grief?

Clutch the truth like a cross. In exile, we become prophets. We part seas. We balance and leap. Sometimes, we fall.

I learned this from the Acrobat.

¹ Inferno, Canto I, by Dante Alighieri. / ² “Homeless” from Paul Simon’s Graceland. / ³ From The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. / ⁴ Signe Cohen, editor, The Upaniṣads: A Complete Guide. Routledge, 2018: page 398. / ⁵ The Upaniṣads. Translated by Patrick Olivelle (Oxford University Press, 1996): ChU 4.1.7, ChU 4.3.1. / ⁶ From Samuel Beckett’s “Worstward Ho.” / ⁷ From The Collapse of Western Civilization by Naomi Oreskes & Erik Conway (Columbia, 2014).