A clandestine phone call two days earlier was behind our impromptu visit. My father's nephew, John, and John's wife Betty, Dad's neighbors and guardian angels on a day to day basis, had called, concerned about my father. My father's latest medical procedure, one he'd tackled on his own, including the drive home after the procedure, had left him weak and frightened.
“I’m old,” my father offered. “I don't remember a damn thing the doctor said.”
I'm hoping I go first. Jimmy and I debate the issue quite frequently.
“I expect there’s a carotid artery somewhere in there, too, Dad,” I replied, grimacing at the red, raw evidence of the doctor’s handiwork and my father’s vulnerability.
I didn’t expect watching my father grow old would be so painful. His back is stooped with osteoporosis; his hearing is shot, his stamina declining, his apptetite nill, his sleep a nocturnal disaster punctuated with repeated trips to the bathroom. And apparently his face and neck are riddled with basal cell carcinoma. Otherwise life is a cakewalk. See above photo. His activities have been reduced to caring for his only companion, an infirmed cat who gives purpose to his days, and watching old movies. He used to love to watch the nightly news with Brian Williams, too. I'm not sure he wants to wait six months for Brian to return.
Dad does love buying new cars, his only vice at 90. I say enjoy the ride, Dad, while you can.
“Alcohol is a waste of time anymore,” my father lamented in response to an offer to buy him a beer. “I can’t even drink enough beer to get a buzz. Besides, it doesn’t taste the same anymore. Nothing is the same anymore.”
Gee, I can't wait for my turn at old age!
I think my father bought six or eight new cars in the last three years. He drives each new purchase around town (no more of the road trips he loved) till the new-car smell fades, than trades them in for the next model to catch his eye, or he bestows shiny, new car on one of his four kids. The car salesmen undoubtedly draw straws when they see him coming. He’s currently into hybrids. Friends have asked if my father is open to adoption.
The man has always been an enigma. Aren't we all? Then again, the strong, silent type, cast in the role of husband, father, provider, and disciplinarian left little time for introspection, much less conversation when we were growing up. Life reduced to one role, that of father, seems to suit Dad. He’s more inclined to share his thoughts, and regrets, certainly now that I’m more inclined to listen.
“I was thinking that when the time comes, maybe you’ll consider burying your mother’s ashes with me.”
Never, in a million years – okay, never in the fifty years since my parents’ divorce – did I see this one coming.
My father has outlived three wives; my mother was wife number one, certainly a thing of the past if marriage is the yardstick used for measuring these things. My mother remarried briefly about twenty years after my father left, then decided the marriage was a mistake. She died of a stroke suddenly and unexpectedly fifteen years ago, alone and just shy of destitute, but rich with curiosity and a keen intellect.
We scrambled to make sense of our loss in the midst of the details that come with death. At our request, my father suggested my siblings and I scatter her ashes at Cape Elizabeth, where they'd spent time during their courtship.
When the time came, standing along the rocky shores of Maine, we found we couldn’t let her go.
"Here, give her to me," Jimmy offered, stepping up to take care of business.
Mind you, this was the same guy who stepped up to clean my mother's frig following her passing. Let's just say, my mother would have been a candidate for A&E's Hoarders. That deed alone endeared Jimmy to the family for life.
"NO!" we shouted simultaneously, suddenly aghast at the thought of scattering our mother's ashes.
No endearing for Jimmy that morning.
My siblings and I returned home, scattered as we were across the country, our grief and indecision the impetus for mom's vagabond afterlife, passing from one child to the next via family weddings and reunions. She's certainly traveled more than she ever did. We do our best to please.
I'm obviously living proof that life is truly stranger than fiction.
My father has taken care of all the details surrounding his demise; he'd lock in a date if he could, the sooner the better. You can take the man out of the Marines, but you can’t take the Marine out of the man. He still gets up every day at six; he still keeps his home and cars spotless; he still dotes on his cat. And he waits.
He waits for our phone calls; waits for our visits; waits for Jimmy and me to buy the house next door and retire to Florida. I think about my father waiting, alone and frightened of what's at the end of the line. I think about the peace that comes with forgiveness, with unconditional love, about the comfort my father has found in reconnecting with his kids.
Perhaps that’s what the wait is really all about – the chance to get it right before the end of the line.