I feel I have entered a lenten season of sorts, these days are a series of reminders of “the lasts” my dad experienced. His last Christmas, last New Year’s. Last January 15 was my parents’ last wedding anniversary. February 2 was the last time my father sang “Happy Birthday” to his wife. His hospice started in the last days of January and he died on Valentines Day. So, its been nearly a year. Everyday, I take a mental inventory of where we were in the timeline on this date in 2018. The following is something I wrote not long before he died. February 11. I am a man child trying to understand what the other side of this event is going to be like, look like and feel like.
One thing about living in Los Angeles, where there is barely even any rain, is that we never have to worry about driving on ice. A couple of times, since I’ve been in Independence, I’ve had to drive on roads that were compromised by either ice or snow.It’s funny how it comes back, this tentative braking in inclement weather that I used to know by rote. That when the road is icy, you start to brake earlier than when you need to. You ease into it, give yourself extra grace. You tap the brake to suss out how much traction there is.
Tonight, after several days of pretty much just taking care of my parents, I went out to meet some friends for a drink. On the drive to Uncle Jack’s, I wondered if maybe I might be crazy for venturing out in freezing rain. My fears were somewhat assuaged when I walked into the restaurant to a full house.
I had a nice time. I talked with a few friends I knew would be there and also to a few friends I had not expected to see. I’ve said it before, but it’s been a blessing in this last year, how deeply I’ve connected with the people and the places of my hometown. You sit in a booth at Penn and Main and you talk about high school days and you gossip about classmates and wax rhapsodic about going to see Grease for $2 at the Booth Theatre and the Girl Scout house on Park and for a few minutes, you think that you’re 16 again and the biggest worry is whether or not your parents will let you go see Prince in Kansas City. (Spoiler alert: they won’t.) For a few minutes, you’re just that pimply brace-faced four-eyed know-it-all, thrilled that anyone let you sit at their table and drink a beer with them.
It was nice to be out, but I didn’t stay long. I wanted to get back to my parents, to make sure my Dad is okay, to make sure my Mom is okay too. In the last two weeks, since my Dad has been on hospice, the daily, sometimes hourly questions are, how is your Dad? How is your Mom? I answer with some script that I think I’ve been given. We are taking it one day at a time. Or, as well as can be expected. Yesterday, a group of people were sitting in my parents’ living room, engaged in yet another polite discussion about the weather. I volunteered about all the times I got my car stuck in a ditch, driving on icy and snowy roads when I was growing up. “Were you able to get our on your own or did your Dad have to come save you?”
My Dad, he sat in his chair. This is also what we do. We tell stories from 10 and 20 and 30 and 40 years ago and we look at my Dad to gauge whether or not he is listening, whether or not he has something to add. Sometimes he does and sometimes not. I looked at him, but his eyes were closed, oblivious to this discussion. “I don’t think he ever had to come save me, I think I got out on my own.” I said that, but I wasn’t sure. Some of us, we think we remember so much. It’s a complex time. There are moments when I feel like I’ve already lost my Dad. I feel him slipping away and then come back a little, then slip away more. As I drove home, in the freezing rain, my windshield wipers flapping furiously in an attempt to warm the glass enough for me to see out, for a minute again, it all felt so normal. Maybe I wasn’t in high school, but in my 20s, on an unburdened visit home to see the folks and the old friends. Still, not the smartest fellow, because I started driving before I let the car warm and the windshield ice melt. But I made my way, back to my parents’ house. This home that has been part of my identity for the last 40 years. One day, of course, this house will belong to someone else.
As I turned onto the street before my street, I slowed my car, flashbacks of the times I’d misjudged my speed, on icy days, in my beat up ’65 Mustang, and ended up careening into the neighbors’ ravine. With a certainty I did not have yesterday, I was quite sure that there had been times indeed that my Dad had been the one to come tow me out of ditches. He had been the one, not always but at least sometimes, to rescue me.
And I was glad that he was at home, sitting in his chair, waiting up for me. I thought, if I wanted, I could bound into the house and ask him if he ever towed me out of a ditch? I could ask him what other stories he might want to tell me before it’s too late.
As it happened, I did not do that. I shed a tear in my car and then wiped it away and walked into the house and optimistically called, “How is everyone?” “Doing fine,” my Mom answered with equal levity. I asked my Dad how his pain was and he said okay. He was a little more lucid than when I’d left. Fox News was on the television. For these last two weeks, every day it seems, I’m slowly tapping my brake, trying to get a sense of how much traction I have, how slick the road is. I wonder what it will feel like to be on the other side of all this. What will happen when I don’t have my Dad around to tow me out of ditches, to keep me safe?