My sister and I gave him a new driver for his 90th birthday. He told us it made a difference in his league play that summer.
When I visited him for his 92nd, we got in at least one round.
He was slowing down. He took naps, let an oxygen concentrator run while he slept.
“I can only work half a day now,” he said.
But every year when we visited, on the phone every Sunday in between, it was the same guy: lucid, engaged, ready with a new joke he’d heard somewhere. Maybe he’d live to be 100, see his granddaughter graduate from high school, get a couple years of college under her belt.
The winter after his 92nd birthday, my mom started sprinkling the phone calls with He doesn’t have much of an appetite and He’s sleeping a lot.
That spring, my dad started talking about things he wanted to get done around the house when we visited again in the summer. Extend the gray-water drain we’d put in the year before. Get the deck painted. Trim the pine trees so the weight wouldn’t be so biased toward the driveway if there were a big snow. Things he couldn’t do anymore, things he didn’t want my mom to have to worry about.
“I’m down to 125 pounds,” he said.
Maybe he was just going to reduce to some minimum size and stop, harden against time like the lumber in an old barn and fix himself in our landscape.
“Dr. D___ took me aside the last time we were at the clinic,” my mom said. “He told me, ‘You need to know that he’s dying. You need to prepare for that.’”
“That, and the care he’ll need. So far, I’ve been able to take care of him. He doesn’t need a lot right now. The last thing he wants is to end up in a hospital or a home. You’ll see a big change in him when you get here.”
It was the first year he didn’t drive to the airport to pick us up.
“He didn’t want to be away from home that long,” my mom said.
But he was awake and ready when we got there, happy to see his son and his family, the granddaughter who’ll be the last one to carry his name.
He looked frail for the first time, felt tiny when I hugged him.
After the red eye, we always nap for a couple hours—trying to settle in for the night in coach is like trying to get comfortable behind your child’s third-grade desk. As soon as we lay down, so did he, and we could hear the pop-sssh of the oxygen machine in his room.
He was still sleeping when we got up, but he made it out of bed for happy hour.
As long as I can remember, those couple hours before dinner were reserved for a beer and something salty, pretzels or popcorn. A time when my mom and dad could sit together at the end of the day, catch up on what had happened, figure out how to take on what might lie ahead.
My mom would finish her beer in the kitchen while she started dinner. When I visited, my dad and I would finish ours on the back porch, or in the breezeway by the TV.
The first couple days, we planned which projects to tackle first. We had to time the deck around the weather, make sure we had a couple of dry days in a row. Rebuilding the fire pit would be better on a dry day so the mortar could set. Better not to have to dig the drain when the soil was mud, but not impossible. I could trim trees any time.
“If we can get all that done,” my dad said, “we’ll be all set.”
It’s nice to just idle for the first few days. Shake off the work life, get used to being back in your childhood home, adjust to the changes in your parents over the last year.
Through their sixties, seventies, even early eighties, the changes were slight year to year. Late eighties into the nineties, the effort of a long life starts to show a little. For the past few years, they’d started looking older when I first saw them waiting for us at the airport, but by the time we’d driven home, I didn’t notice any more. My mom would head straight for the house to unlock the door. My dad would grab one of the bags out of the back. “That’s heavy,” he’d say. “Let me get that.” He’d hold the door, let his family file in ahead of him.
Even if he was a little slower, he was still strong in the world.
That last summer, though, the shock of his frailty lingered. He’d changed in a way that was too much of a departure. He was a man falling through ice that couldn’t bear even that slight weight, and so far out that no hand or line would reach.
But we were there to work and to celebrate this birthday, not dwell on the inevitable.
It’s a long haul. The Great Depression, Guadalcanal, the Bay Area during the Sixties, the digital age. How do you celebrate that journey through history? That constant presence in our lives? Pushing 59 years for me, longer for my sister.
Two and a half weeks. Just be. Nothing out of the ordinary. Breakfast and lunch around the kitchen table. Happy hour. Dinner in the dining room. Poker after we cleaned up the dishes.
Projects all day. One at a time, talk about how we wanted to approach it, haul out the tools, start arguing midway through. Thirty years in the Air Force, he was used to running a project, but my sister and I each had a solution in mind, too. Would he like it if just once it went his way without a fight, or would he think we were taking a dive? He wants to argue for his vision, let him argue, let him duke it out. Maybe he’s right. Maybe all this gravel needs to come out so we can find the end of the pipe, add another 20 feet so it empties over the bank.
He pulled up a lawn chair, started going at the gravel with his trench shovel. You kids don’t get to do all the work. I’ll find the end of the goddamn pipe.
He couldn’t make it from the house to the edge of the yard without a rest, but he could pull up a chair and go at it with a shovel a few strokes at a time.
“Relax,” I said. “Ninety-three, you can take a break, let somebody else hump it.”
But when work defines you, when you know yourself by the visible things you accomplish every day, how you keep every engine running, every faucet water tight, every door on its hinges, you don’t go gently into fatigue. Not when you’re out there with your kids.
Knowing it wasn’t going to get any better, that adding or dropping a medication wasn’t going to make him stronger, that it was only going to get worse didn’t bring on any acceptance or resignation, only frustration.
I wanted him to be able to settle into a state of appreciation, look back at the gift of a long life and feel thankful. Easy to want when it’s not the end of your life, and he didn’t seem to be having any of it. He was going to rail on like one of those guys who tells the executioner to kiss his ass even as the floor is falling away and the noose is about to snap his neck.
His life, his death, and since he wanted to dwell on the former, we could only go along like it was any other summer.
I had a mostly nice relationship with my dad.
When I was little, he adored me, like most parents adore their kids when they’re little. He’d carry me on his shoulders, bring home a new toy when he cashed his paycheck. Sprung for an electric train when I was two. That was a bid deal on an airman’s pay.
He let me hang around when he was working on cars. He’d patiently untangle the fifty feet of parachute rope he’d given me the day before. Anything I broke, he fixed.
It went south a little when I entered my teens, mostly around long hair and drugs. The military wanted to maintain order not only among the ranks but also among the families. There was a focus and an image to maintain. We were a loaded weapon that might have to get turned on Russia or China or who knows who at any moment, and how would it look if the men who were meant to annihilate you were raising a generation of dissidents?
|Author + daughter|
When my dad retired, though, things changed. We moved to rural Pennsylvania where he and my mom grew up. The concrete of the flight line was replaced by miles of forest in every direction. He put on fatigues because they made great work clothes, not because he had to show up in uniform. He was his own C.O.
He could build his house. Take off the morning to get in nine holes with his friends, and still get back in time to put up a wall or frame a window.
How long my hair was didn’t matter.
We weren’t one of those families where fathers and sons were best friends, but we got along. He’d let me have a beer on the weekend. I caught him tapping his foot to Led Zeppelin III one morning. If I was out golfing with him, he’d hand me a cigar when he and his friends lit up.
We were on the same side of a lot of political arguments. He read "Fire in the Lake" when I brought it home from school, and he decided that Vietnam hadn’t been Washington’s most righteous effort. Neither of us thought the Republicans had much interest in doing anything good for the working class.
We rooted for the Steelers. And the Pirates and the Pens if they got anywhere near the post season.
We were happy to see each other on holidays, and when I was there in the summer for his birthday. We talked on the phone every weekend.
So, when this last visit came around, when we all knew but wouldn’t say that it was probably the last one, we didn’t have to spend time trying to make up for things we’d missed along the way, trying to warm over an icy history.
We could do what we’d always done. Tackle the projects around the house. Knock off for happy hour. Settle in on the back porch, listen to the birds usher out the afternoon. Dinner, and then poker.
Two and a half weeks of life as we knew it every time we got together.
Crossposted at Goodreads.