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I’m sorting through my old books at my parents’ house, deciding which ones to take when I move out in a few weeks to start a new job in Boston. Paging through an old psychology textbook from college, I come across a diagram showing a grotesque, bizarrely proportioned creature. The label reads “cortical homunculus” — little man of the mind. It’s a map of a human being with all the body parts proportional to the number of nerve endings those parts have in the brain, showing which capture the biggest share of our attention. The eyes, nose, and ears balloon obscenely away from the skull, the lips and tongue swollen like they’ve been stung by bees. The hands are bigger than the rest of the body put together. It’s a caricature of hedonism, a creature consumed by sensation.
Tucked in the corner of another shelf, I find a children’s book called Love You Forever. There’s a few letters in the front cover — someone I used to love sent me them along with the book for my birthday a couple of years ago. In neat lettering on lined pages ripped out from a notebook, she writes that she loves me so much she can’t bear it, that she draws the covers up around her face when she thinks about me in the mornings and at night and feels enveloped in my love. She tells me she she feels lost in it — says it makes her want to be better, want to grow together and give that love to the kids we’ll have. She sends the book along, her favorite that her mom would read to her as a child, so I can know her better. She includes a page from her journal the day we met. “Being with him felt like being at home."
I was living in Israel then, across the world from her. The little man of my mind remembers the gentle warmth of the sun in a Mediterranean autumn when I read the letter in the hillside garden near my work, how cool the pink marble of the bench I sat on felt, how a quiet breeze tinged with the smell of the sea caressed the palm trees that shaded me and made the pages flutter in my hands as my heart swelled reading her words.
 
Our whole basement is filled with books. One wall is all shelves; books spill precariously over the edge of a too-narrow setback shelf that wraps around two walls (an architectural oddity in an old New England house) and more books cover all the open table spaces. Dad keeps a diverse library, but most of them reflect his interests: World War II, religion, social and economic development. One shelf is devoted to books he’s collected detailing the effects of atomic weapons, a gruesome fascination born of his having grown up in the ‘60s, when school drills meant practicing “duck and cover” and learning not to stare at the blast of a nuclear bomb and go blind. As a boy, he’d keep a knapsack full of essential supplies by his bed — candy bars, a flashlight, Dennis the Menace comics — in case there was ever an attack (or he was abducted by aliens).
I flip through my books on Greek history. We get so many words and ideas from the Greeks — Alfred North Whitehead once said that the whole history of Western thought was a series of footnotes on Plato — but they saw the world radically differently. Like the word “nostalgia”, which comes from Greek words meaning the pain of homecoming. Now, we see nostalgia as a gentle longing for bygone times. But to the Greeks, it was a disease that afflicted wayward soldiers — debilitatingly, sometimes fatally — who, feeling unmoored, out of step, or torn apart by violence and exhaustion, longed for home. It was a death of the heart.  
 
The first time we realized Dad was sick was after he fell off his bike and cracked his skull, just a few days after my birthday the year I received her love letter. The doctors, worried that his brain might swell from the bleeding, ran all sorts of tests. That’s how they found the tumor. He never felt it, even though by then it was big enough to press against his heart and lungs.
 
Dad always loved to bike. When I was little, he took me along in a seat over the rear wheel, one of those shell-like pieces molded from a single piece of plastic, and we’d cycle up and down winding, pastoral roads in the New Hampshire town I grew up in, the sun coming mottled and green through the lush canopy of trees that lined them. When I grew older, I’d ride alongside him, never quite able to keep up. He was proud of how strong he’d get every summer, always keeping a careful log of each day’s ride in messy grids drawn with blue ballpoint in a spiral notebook, which he kept on a dusty shelf in the garage next to where he hung his bike from a hook screwed in the wall.

 
They set the surgery for a month after my birthday. Mom and Dad told me I didn’t need to be there, and I felt almost guilty wanting to come home then, because I wanted to see her, too — maybe more than I wanted to see them — especially after that birthday letter. Living across the world meant everything happened out of step: I’d get up early just to tell her good night and then spend the whole day waiting for her to wake up. Dad’s accident, too, happened while I was asleep. Nobody even called me until after he was home from the hospital.
 
Eventually, I decided I needed to be home with Mom and Dad — for me, if not for them. I couldn’t imagine being asleep in another country while the surgeons cut him open. And if now I could see her, too, then that wasn’t such a bad price to pay for Dad’s illness. I booked a flight to New York to see her first, even though my parents lived closer to Boston, where the surgery would be.
 
A few days before the surgery, I met her outside the school she worked at and we walked along the river as she told me why she wanted things to end between us. She had grown distant the week before, said we needed to work on our friendship. The warm and gentle sun made the autumn air unseasonably mild. The metal of the railing that ran along the river felt cool under my hands, a quiet breeze blew across the bay, and my heart shriveled hearing her words.
 

Afterwards, we walked for miles through the park, and I told her everything I’d imagined I would say when we finally met again, pretending nothing had changed, acting out conversations I’d held in my mind for weeks. I was still out of step, living in the nostalgia of my invented memories of us together, unable to accept what she had already decided. Here and there we would hold hands, a pitying kindness on her part which I mistook as the chance of our futures remaining intertwined. The food tasted like ash when we met her parents for dinner. She asked me why I wasn’t eating. Because she was the one who’d done the breaking up, everything was in its right place for her.

I had a blistering migraine the whole train ride home when I left the next day. Migraines are a temporal disease, an affliction of the passage of time. The little man of my mind cried out for hours without end, trapped in the eternity of the present — the fluorescent cabin lights are too bright for his bulging eyes; every smell and taste in the crowded cabin is poison that makes him retch; every noise is a needle in his oversized ears; every bump and rattle of the tracks splits open his skull more. Instinctively, he moves as little as possible, floating inchoate in a sea of raw sensation. Nothing else matters, no past, no future, for as long as the migraine endures. By the time I got off the train it had started to pass, and I stumbled towards my parents’ car.
We got up at 4:00 a.m. the day of the surgery, and I took the three of us to the hospital, each of us too nervous and tired to say much during the hour’s drive. I imagined what the surgeons felt while they performed their delicate butchery. How big were the hands of the little men in their minds? Do surgeons need more feeling in their hands, or less, while they rip someone open and try to sew them back together? Could they tell how strong his bones were when they cracked his chest open? Could they feel how warm and steady his heart was while they cut out the cancer that was trying to stop it from beating? Did they know how powerful his lungs were when they cut around the nerves that told them how to expand and contract?
 
Mom cried when they told us about the complications. The tumor was too big; they had to cut out the nerve cluster it had wrapped itself around, partially paralyzing his diaphragm and forever shallowing his breathing. 

Maybe every disease is temporal when it gets bad enough. Time becomes measured in how long it takes to get to the hospital and back; how long he’s been awake, how long he’s been unconscious; how much time you’ve lost. How much time you have left. I’d been gone in Israel for a year, but when Dad was recovering, it was like he’d aged ten. The man who used to ride his bike for hours without stopping now was left breathless by a few laps around the hospital ward. At home, I would carry his plates of food to the table, lift anything heavier than a carton of milk for him. I’d help him bathe, carefully avoiding the corded scar that wound serpentine down his sternum. He slept most of the day, giving me too much time to think about her. Eventually, the wounds healed.
Dad got sick again last spring. It came on quick — first, some slurred words, then trouble swallowing, and a weak, clumsy grip. He was becoming the homunculus, swollen lips and tongue and hands all out of proportion. I took him to the emergency room. Within a couple nights, he couldn’t speak. A few hours after that, he couldn’t breathe.
 
The disease was an act of irony: Removing the tumor that was killing him had triggered a new condition where his immune system now attacked the antibodies his nerves produced, causing progressive paralysis.
 
He was sedated for most of the next month to ease the discomfort of the breathing and feeding tubes. When he was awake, he would talk by writing in spiral notebooks we brought him, filling at least a dozen with scrawling notes, questions, and reflections. I sat with him most nights until he began to fall asleep, holding his hand and reading prayers out loud from books his arms were too weak to hold up. Each night when I left, he'd write, “When are you coming back?”
 
When Mom and I were home together, we took on tasks that would be difficult to do if and when Dad came home. We went into his half of the basement, where boxes of old files, years of receipts, and family memorabilia were crammed onto what shelves weren’t already overflowing with more books. On one shelf there was an old television, one of those impossibly heavy cathode-ray tube pieces that spat out images in clusters of red, green, and blue dots you could see if you sat close enough to the screen. “It could come in handy if one of the other TVs breaks”, he’d say. Next to it was an antique radio with a fried circuit board: “Worth a lot if we fix it.”
The greatest fossil find was tucked away behind our old camping gear in the furthest depths of the basement. In a zippered briefcase, wrapped in layers of crinkled aluminum foil, was an ancient laptop. On my next visit, I asked Dad what it was for, already guessing the answer. “If there’s ever a nuclear attack, the electromagnetic blast will knock out any unshielded electronics,” he wrote out — thus the foil. “Having a working computer after an attack like that would be invaluable,” he continued, his eyes already creasing in a smile and his shoulders hunching in his self-deprecating way.
 
Late in July, Dad had graduated from the hospital to physical therapy, and he seemed to be on a steady path towards recovery. But his convalescence looked to stretch far into the future. He still took his meals through a tube rudely inserted into his stomach. He still mostly got around in a wheelchair, dragging along his oxygen tank. His voice, reedy and whisper-quiet when it came out of the tracheostomy tube, would vanish by the afternoon, and he would go back to talking through written notes. 
The pain of nostalgia comes from having lost something that was dear to you. For those Greek soldiers who came back from the war, then, homecoming must have done little to ameliorate it — home was the same, but it was they who changed.
 
I asked Dad what he thought about during those long hours in the hospital where he couldn’t move, eat, or speak. Mostly, he said, he prayed. With few distractions, a minimum of sensations other than ones causing discomfort, the little man of his mind was quieted, and his thoughts drifted towards the realm of the spirit.
 
Dad’s mom died late that September. Dad was home then and steadily improving, but his weak immune system made plane travel too dangerous, so I went out west to the funeral on behalf of our side of the family. It was the first time I went alone to Spokane, where my dad grew up, the first time in years that I had seen his side of the family. We drove into the wooded foothills of northern Idaho and stayed at the family vacation home on Priest Lake, like we used to when I was a kid. We took my uncle’s boat out on the lake, cutting fast across rough waters whose slate color mirrored the gathering rain clouds, and circled around Kalispell Island, where my grandparents took the family camping when my dad and his brother and sister were young. Later, we hiked along the edge of the lake, passing by signs that told the history of the area. “Kalispell” was the name of a local Native American tribe, the signs told; “Spokane” was another. Names long ago stripped of meaning — nostalgia abides only the good.
We spent most of the weekend looking through the thousands of photos that my grandparents had taken over the years. Grandmother was quiet and reserved as long as I knew her; Dad says her mind was a black box. Looking through those pictures was like finding an old book that you thought you knew by heart and then realizing that you’d started on the last chapter each time you read it before. We called her Mother or Grandmother, never Mom, Mama, Grandma. Even her husband called her Mother around us. That’s who she was, a caretaker and devoted servant of her family, but also distant, conservative, humorless. At 18, she left a hard home on a Kansas farmstead during the Great Depression to live on her own and become a nurse. The pictures showed a young woman who was beautiful, fashionable, vivacious. In one, she laughs as she pretends to give anesthetic to a friend. In another series of pictures, she sits in a club with her friends night after night, a different young man sitting next to her in each photo.
 
We interred her ashes at the veterans’ cemetery near Spokane, where my grandfather’s waited for her. The part of Idaho where Priest Lake sits is all winding roads across riverbeds and through crowded forests on rolling hills, a landscape hardly different from where I grew up in New Hampshire. But the map of the earth out west in Washington, around the cemetery, is drawn by a larger hand. Fields of pale yellow grass cover hills that roll away and away into the distant, endless sky. The bright, cold October sun and biting wind chilled us as we gathered in a semicircle around the crypt, a missing space between us where Dad should have been.
 
We were all surprised at how many people showed up to the wake held at Grandmother’s church — her vibrant social life, another side we never knew. The pastor read simple prayers of love and thankfulness that went down like anodynes. Later, my cousin and I talked about the need for ritual and ceremony to provide meaning: the act of remembering, truthful or not, begins to put everything in its right place. However out of step I felt in my life again in that moment — missing my dad, yearning to be with another girl I loved and who wasn’t sure she wanted to be with me — being there with my family anchored me in a safe harbor.
Dad and I take walks together around the neighborhood now. Slow and leisurely for me, but his breath comes ragged by the end. He carries a monitor that measures his heart rate and oxygen levels. He worries about slipping on ice. Some things are like they always were, or nearly; he still cooks dinner most nights, the little man of his mind reveling more than ever at the sensuousness of taste after so many months spent unable to eat anything. Each night his voice booms confidently through the house announcing that dinner’s ready. I almost forget some days. But a reminder always comes — in preparation for a weekend trip, hundreds of his pills carefully sorted into plastic bags pile the counter like a particularly bitter Halloween score; a weight he asks me to lift is shockingly light; the way he carries his body, now withered and tired; the quiet moments I intrude upon where he sits resting, exhausted after doing nothing.   
 
One night, Dad and I sit together in the kitchen, asking each other what we thought all this has been about. It’s human nature to narrativize our lives and seek deeper meaning: this promotion, a deserved reward; that broken relationship, a proof of its impossibility from the start; this sickness, a punishment, bad karma, a test from God. Nostalgia for the past or anxiety for the future both come when events unfolding clash with the narrative, and we scramble to rewrite, reevaluate. Dad says that things happen because God wills them, but then we can never know God’s will anyway, so the only thing we can do is make our choices with pure intentions. Not to do things for others, not out of promise of reward or fear of punishment. I tell him I hope we made every choice the best way we could have — I just wish I could go home.

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