Since my father died unexpectedly in May of a massive stroke and my mother was subsequently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the only book I have been able to get myself to read is Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart. The Buddhist nun counsels us to embrace vulnerability and change. Don’t avoid pain and grief; sidle closer.
It’s good advice, and it helps when, as I clean out my parents’ house, I uncover something that brings on tears, such as my mother’s wedding dress, handmade by my grandmother because that’s what people did then and my mother needed a dress that would camouflage the bump that was me.
But now I’ve found another book that compels me to read it. On my father’s desk was a new copy of Thomas M. Disch’s The Prisoner. In the 1970s, my father and I obsessively watched the related television series, and lines from the show became part of our family culture. If one of us said, “Who is Number One?” The other would say, “You are Number Six.” And then we both would shout: “I am not a number; I am a free man!”
In the show, a spy has been kidnapped and imprisoned in a small town called the Village. The residents pretend the Village is a normal town, but it’s impossible to leave it. And everyone is known, not by their name, but by their number. The opening sequence ends with the spy, Number Six, rejecting his status; he asserts that he is free.
It turns out Disch, a science fiction writer, was hired to write a novel based on the series; the series was not based on the novel. But it’s been fun to read and to remember the campy Village characters, the ridiculous giant balloons that suffocated escapees, and the actor Patrick McGoohan’s manly pronouncements. The ritual of repeating the lines was an acknowledgment of our shared love of the show, an in-joke, a secret language. Similarly, my family sometimes repeated phrases from Go, Dog, Go, a book I had read over and over as a child. “Do you like my hat?” one of us would say, and someone would respond, “I do; I like that party hat.”
But as I think back, I realize it was only my father and I who repeated the lines from The Prisoner, not my younger brother or mother. And my father would say the last part quietly, “I am not a number….” But I liked to shout it out, like McGoohan in the opening sequence: “I am a free man!” My mother would smile at us, a smile just short of an eye roll. But my father and I would grin, as if to say: Yes, it was cheesy and goofy and dated. But it was mesmerizing, too. Remember? Remember?
I guess reading the book is a way to say the lines again and to hear the echo of his response. I read it and sidle close to grief, to the ache of knowing that the arc of my father’s life is over, that the life I had with my parents is forever changed. My prayer: to never lose the sound of his voice.
“Who is Number One?”
“You are Number Six.”
“I am not a number; I am a free man!”