My sister called it “the year of secrets,” but when I look back on it now, I’ve come to understand that it was a time not of what was there, but of what wasn’t. A patient of mine once said, “There are ghosts walking around inside me, but they don’t always talk. Sometimes they have nothing to say.” Sarah squinted or kept her eyes closed most of the time because she was afraid the light would blind her. I think we all have ghosts inside us, and it’s better when they speak than when they don’t. After my father died, I couldn’t talk to him in person anymore, but I didn’t stop having conversations with him in my head. I didn’t stop seeing him in my dreams or stop hearing his words. And yet it was what my father hadn’t said that took over my life for a while—what he hadn’t told us. It turned out that he wasn’t the only person who had kept secrets. On January sixth, four days after his funeral, Inga and I came across the letter in his study.
We had stayed on in Minnesota with our mother to begin tackling the job of sifting through his papers. We knew that there was a memoir he had written in the last years of his life, as well as a box containing the letters he had sent to his parents—many of them from his years as a soldier in the Pacific during World War II—but there were other things in that room we had never seen. My father’s study had a particular smell, one slightly different from the rest of the house. I wondered if all the cigarettes he’d smoked and the coffee he’d drunk and the rings those endless cups had left on the desk over forty years had acted upon the atmosphere of that room to produce the unmistakable odor that hit me when I walked through the door. The house is sold now. A dental surgeon bought it and did extensive renovations, but I can still see my father’s study with its wall of books, the filing cabinets, the long desk he had built himself, and the plastic organizer on it, which despite its transparency had small handwritten labels on every drawer—“Paper Clips,” “Hearing Aid Batteries,” “Keys to the Garage,” “Erasers.”
The day Inga and I began working, the weather outside was heavy. Through the large window, I looked at the thin layer of snow under an iron-colored sky. I could feel Inga standing behind me and hear her breathing. Our mother, Marit, was sleeping, and my niece, Sonia, had curled up somewhere in the house with a book. As I pulled open a file drawer, I had the abrupt thought that we were about to ransack a man’s mind, dismantle an entire life, and without warning a picture of the cadaver I had dissected in medical school came to mind, its chest cavity gaping open as it lay on the table. One of my lab partners, Roger Abbot, had called the body Tweedledum, Dum Dum, or just Dum. “Erik, get a load of Dum’s ventricle. Hypertrophy, man.” For an instant I imagined my father’s collapsed lung inside him, and then I remembered his hand squeezing mine hard before I left his small room in the nursing home the last time I saw him alive. All at once, I felt relieved he had been cremated.
Lars Davidsen’s filing system was an elaborate code of letters, numbers, and colors devised to allow for a descending hierarchy within a single category. Initial notes were subordinate to first drafts, first drafts to final drafts, and so on. It wasn’t only his years of teaching and writing that were in those drawers, but every article he had written, every lecture he had given, the voluminous notes he had taken, and the letters he had received from colleagues and friends over the course of more than sixty years. My father had catalogued every tool that had ever hung in the garage, every receipt for the six used cars he had owned in his lifetime, every lawnmower, and every home appliance—the extensive documentation of a long and exceptionally frugal history. We discovered a list for itemized storage in the attic: children’s skates, baby clothes, knitting materials. In a small box, I found a bunch of keys. Attached to them was a label on which my father had written in his small neat hand: “Unknown Keys.”
We spent days in that room with large black garbage bags, dumping hundreds of Christmas cards, grade books, and innumerable inventories of things that no longer existed. My niece and mother mostly avoided the room. Wired to a Walkman, Sonia ambled through the house, read Wallace Stevens, and slept in the comatose slumber that comes so easily to adolescents. From time to time she would come in to us and pat her mother on the shoulder or wrap her long thin arms around Inga’s shoulders to show silent support before she floated into another room. I had been worried about Sonia ever since her father died five years earlier. I remembered her standing in the hallway outside his hospital room, her face strangely impassive, her body stiffened against the wall, and her skin so white it made me think of bones. I know that Inga tried to hide her grief from Sonia, that when her daughter was at school my sister would turn on music, lie down on the floor, and wail, but I had never seen Sonia give in to sobs, and neither had her mother. Three years later, on the morning of September 11, 2001, Inga and Sonia had found themselves running north with hundreds of other people as they fled Stuyvesant High School, where Sonia was a student. They were just blocks from the burning towers, and it was only later that I discovered what Sonia had seen from her schoolroom window. From my house in Brooklyn that morning, I saw only smoke.
When she wasn’t resting, our mother wandered from room to room, drifting around like a sleepwalker. Her determined but light step was no heavier than in the old days, but it had slowed. She would check on us, offer food, but she rarely crossed the threshold. The room must have reminded her of my father’s last years. His worsening emphysema shrank his world in stages. Near the end, he could barely walk anymore and kept mostly to the twelve by sixteen feet of the study. Before he died, he had separated the most important papers, which were now stored in a neat row of boxes beside his desk. It was in one of these containers that Inga found the letters from women my father had known before my mother. Later, I read every word they had written to him—a trio of premarital loves—a Margaret, a June, and a Lenore, all of whom wrote fluent but tepid letters signed “Love” or “With love” or “Until next time.”
Inga’s hands shook when she found the bundles. It was a tremor I had been familiar with since childhood, not related to an illness but to what my sister called her wiring. She could never predict an onset. I had seen her lecture in public with quiet hands, and I had also seen her give talks when they trembled so violently she had to hide them behind her back. After withdrawing the three bunches of letters from the long-lost but once-desired Margaret, June, and Lenore, Inga pulled out a single sheet of paper, looked down at it with a puzzled expression, and without saying anything handed it to me.
The letter was dated June 27, 1937. Beneath the date, in a large childish hand, was written: “Dear Lars, I know you will never ever say nothing about what happened. We swore it on the BIBLE. It can’t matter now she’s in heaven or to the ones here on earth. I believe in your promise. Lisa.”
“He wanted us to find it,” Inga said. “If not, he would have destroyed it. I showed you those journals with the pages torn out of them.” She paused. “Have you ever heard of Lisa?”
“No,” I said. “We could ask Mamma.”
Inga answered me in Norwegian, as if the subject of our mother demanded that we use her first language. “Nei, Jei vil ikke forstyrre henne med dette.” (No, I won’t bother her with this.) “I’ve always felt,” she continued, that there were things Pappa kept from Mamma and us, especially about his childhood. He was fifteen then. I think they’d already lost the forty acres of the farm, and unless I’m wrong, it was the year after Grandpa found out his brother David was dead.” My sister looked down at the piece of pale brown paper. “‘It can’t matter now she’s in heaven or to the ones here on earth.’ Somebody died.” She swallowed loudly. “Poor Pappa, swearing on the Bible.”
Excerpted from The Sorrows of an American © Copyright 2012 by Siri Hustvedt. Reprinted with permission by Picador. All rights reserved.
The Sorrows of an American