The Beauty In Lying To Yourself
Esquire Singapore|November 2021
It’s like the world has been rubbing our noses in it. Broken government. Police brutality. A global pandemic. Climate change. Awash in harrowing realities, the author, a novelist, discovers the sustaining power of everyday fictions.
Joshua Ferris

I hugged my father goodbye for the last time in a hospital room in March 2014. He was a seven-year survivor of pancreatic cancer. No one thought he’d make it much longer. He was labouring to breathe, and I was due on book tour. It was, he said to me, now or never, kid.

Pride insisted he climb from the bed on his own. He had to negotiate around half a dozen tubes. But then he opened his arms to me and I fell into them as I had been doing for 40 years. He whispered that he loved me and we wept and shook in each other’s embrace, the profoundest love and the profoundest loss expressed in one gesture.

Over our grief, neither of us could hear the cosmic laughter.

For it is never two sad jerks in a hospital room who decide the when and where of a last goodbye. He hung on for four more months, by which time the book tour was over and I was back at his bedside in the fresh hell of enlightenment: Final embraces do not get scheduled. Death toyed with him until he could no longer stand, or open his eyes, or speak. Our final final goodbye was a one-sided affair, uttered into the void.

That I had any control over death was the first illusion to crumble. The second fell the instant he died.

I believed there must be some compensation for watching a man die. Part of me even wondered if a cartoon angel might lift out of his still-warm body. Okay, not that, but... something. The loaded book that falls from the shelf. The providential bird that lands on the sill. There was nothing. He had his run. He breathed his last. The dumb oxygen tank beeped and respired until, 10 minutes later, someone thought to turn it off. The peace and quiet were outrageous.

A flawed but decent man, my father had three children, four wives and a dozen careers. He preferred dreaming big to a day’s honest labour, which brought him grief. But he was eternally seduced by life and its possibilities. By the time their marriage ended, my mother des pised him.

“I thought he was a con man,” she said to me. I had decided to write a book about my father—grief will do that to the writer—and I was gathering facts on its behalf. “He was hell-bent on making a killing. I didn’t give a damn if he made a killing. I just wanted him to make a living.”

When she found herself pregnant with the con man’s baby, she explained, she considered having an abortion. This was news to me.

“Wait,” I said. “You mean with...?”

I pointed at myself. She nodded.

“But in the end, I decided against it.”

“So I gather,” I said.

I was so disillusioned by death then, so beset by grief, and so uncertain about the point of life, that I had mixed feelings about whether she’d made the right decision.

Why had she gone through with it? Why did she fall in love with a dreamer in the first place? Maybe she didn’t know him. Or hoped to change him. Either way: I was the product of a romantic illusion.

Illusion is not just what glitters but what greases every joint and hinge. Beyond verification but not completely bonkers, illusion is best distinguished from delusion by example: However far-fetched my belief that one day I will be elected president of the United States, it isn’t the patent absurdity of believing I’ll be the nation’s first president. That distinction belongs to George Washington— and I am delusional.

Illusions are more benign. Idiosyncratic yet universal. We grant them a grudging citizenship among our stricter sanities.

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