Thursday, June 11, 2009

A breeze from the south

Friday, May 22, 2009, 9:03am
Steve's house

Chris calling, my cell phone says.

This is bad. Chris never calls my cell, especially in the morning. Something is wrong. And if something is wrong, it's probably about dad.

I've been meaning to call my father for a while. It's been a week or so since I've spoken with him, and I've been worried since Greg told me dad was complaining of shortness of breath a few days ago. And of course, Dad has been getting dialysis three times a week for three and a half years, and he had heart surgery, and he takes 100 different kinds of pills...

I hit SEND on my phone. "Hello. Hello?" No one's there.

I'll call dad. That's what I'll do. I'll call him, and he'll pick up, with his usual "HEEE-llo", and I'll laugh a little, and realize I was worrying over nothing. I'll call him, and we'll have a nice chat.

Chris calling, says the phone again.

"Steve, it's Chris. I've got some bad news. About dad."

Please don't let him be dead. Please just let him be in the hospital again. I'll go visit him with Tim and the baby, and we'll nurse him back to health. He'll beat the odds, surprise the doctors and walk out of there on his own in a few weeks, just like he did last time.

Just please, please, don't let him be dead.


Gardenview Estates Senior Living Community, late afternoon

Dad and I sit on a farmer's porch in wicker lawn chairs. The sun burns from a flawless sky, as blue as a Navy man's jacket. Each time the heat gets uncomfortable, a gentle breeze blows in, as if God has installed a giant thermostat just for us.

I turn to face dad and he's already looking at me, his eyebrows lifted a little, his mouth closed tightly.

"So... I guess this is it, kid," he says, finally.

"It can't be, Dad. It can't be. I don't know what I would do without you."

"Yeahh, ya do," he says, turning his head away from me. "You're a grown person. You don't need me as a father anymore. You need me as a friend. People lose friends all the time."

"You make it sound so trivial. You're my father!"

"Are you really gonna miss our bi-monthly phone conversations that much?" He grins.

"Come on. I have a new baby, you know. And a wife. And a job. I get busy."

His mouth spreads into a wide smile, a contented smile, as if I were Frank Sinatra singing a beautiful tune.

"See? See?? You're busy living your life," he says. "All fathers go eventually. That's the way it's supposed to be."

"But there are so many things I should have said. And I should have spent more time with you. I feel horrible."

He listens patiently, his eyes locked on me. "What do you want to say, Steve? That you love me? That you appreciate everything I did for you? That you'll never forget me?"

"Yeah. Something like that."

"And you didn't think I knew all that already?"

"It wouldn't have hurt to say it."

"Maybe not. But that's not how it was with us. It was assumed," he shrugs.

We both stare at the Tigerlillies in the flower beds near our feet. "That mulch is fresh. Can you smell it? I used to love that smell," he says.

"Dad, what happened?"

"To me?"

"No. To Al Pacino. Of course to you!"

"Well, first my parents had sex," he says, gesturing with his hand. "Then, about nine months later, I came down the birth canal..."


His smile fades. "It was quick, Steve. Don't worry about the details."

"I need to know, dad."

"Why?" he asks, squinting at me.

"So my imagination won't run away with me."

He breathes deeply, running his thumb and forefinger across the collar of his white undershirt. It occurs to me that this is hard for him, despite everything.

"I got up, got dressed, and went out to the car to go to dialysis. I was due there at 6am. I felt funny. Lightheaded, like.

"I got in the car, closed the door, and when I went to put the key in the ignition..."

"That was it?"

"Everything went white. Not black. It was white everywhere I could see."

He pauses again, staring into the sky. "I took a deep breath. I had to force it. My whole body was shutting off. For a second I could see again. I was parked facing the building and I could see the window to an office. It was Carole's office, the one who does the marketing. Carole wasn't there, of course. It was early..."

"And then what?"

"And den, nuttin'!" He says summarily. "Everything really did go black after that."

"Did it hurt?"

He shrugs. "Just for a second. It was very fast."

It's easier for me to breathe now that I know the details. I'll never get over it, but now I don't have to wonder what it was like for him.

"Did you see the tunnel and the light?"

"Yeah," he laughs. "Your mother was there. And my mother and father. Your mother had a drink in her hand."


He throws his head back and laughs, a little too hard for the joke. Gradually, silence descends again.

"Don't be mad at your mother, Steve."

"I'm not."

I turn to look at him. "I hadn't seen you in a couple of months. I feel very bad about that," I say, finally.

"You know that CD stand in my apartment? The wooden one?"

"Yeah. What about it?"

"I had all my CDs and DVDs on there. I used it every day. Before that, I had them piled up on the... on the windowsill next to my chair."

"I know, Dad. I built that stand for you."

"Of course you did! That's my point! You did something that made me happy every day. And you fixed my computer, you set up my Facebook profile picture, you married Tim..."

The laugh again. This time I join him.

"She's my favorite daughter-in-law. Don't tell the other two. I love her just as if she was my own daughter."

"She loves you too, Dad." God dammit. How am I going to tell her?

"Yeah, that's not gonna be easy," he says. Holy shit. Did he read my mind?

"I didn't say that out loud, did I, Dad?"

"Nope. I know things now. I hear things."

He sighs a little. "I would have liked you to be here more. But you were two hours away. We talked on the phone sometimes, and that was nice. It's not like I was totally bored around here. And you just had a baby...That baby of yours," he smiles, his voice trailing off.

"She comes here on April first, you leave six weeks later. That wasn't a coincidence, was it?"

"No. I had something to live for. Someone I wanted to see. I was ready after that."

"But you were so healthy!"

He raises his eyebrows. "Oh really?" he says, sarcastically. "Take a look at all the meds I was taking sometime, Steve.

"I could've died three years ago, the first time I got sick. It wasn't my time. Now it is."

"But what if you collapsed 90 seconds earlier? What if you were in the main lobby instead of your car? Maybe someone would have seen you! They could have called someone--"

"Steve," he interrupts. "What if your brother was an hour later coming to my house three years ago? I was saved that day because I got lucky. And I got lucky during rehab, when I got a bad infection and almost died. How much luck can one guy have?"

"I wanted another five years. Or more," I say.

"Five years? Yeah, sure," he says, with a dismissive wave of the hand. "Five more years on dialysis? Do you have any idea how hard dialysis is on the body?"

"Not exactly."

He shakes his head. "My body was getting tired. I could feel it. I knew it."

"I'm sorry, Dad."

"About what? I got three and a half years. Three and a half years!!" he shouts. "I visited family, I went to the casinos, I even found some fun things to do with the old geezers around here! I played Bingo and Pinochle, I sang in the choir--remember?!"

"Yes. I hope you handed out cotton balls."

"No, I stood in the back," he smiles. The comeback was quick, so quick that he was obviously anticipating my wisecrack.

"I had fun," he says. "I was very lucky."

"It just feels weird," I say. "It feels... wrong. What if they put men on Mars someday? You won't see that!"

"I've seen wars, I've seen peace, I've seen good presidents and bad presidents. I saw 9/11, I saw Pearl Harbor. I saw men on the moon. But best of all, I was in the room when each one of you kids were born and I was there to watch you grow up. You boys all turned out very well. You I wasn't sure about for a while," he says, and though he smiles wickedly, his eyes are very sad.

"I know I didn't always make it easy. I'm sorry--"

"Ah, Jesus. What is this, Ghost Whisperer now?" he smiles. "Seriously, I'm so proud of you, the beautiful girl you married, and your little daughter. You take care of that little girl. Treasure her every single day. Treasure both of them!" he says, his face going steely.

"I will. I do. I promise, Dad."


The sun has set a little. A breeze kicks up, and suddenly I smell Lilacs. I had forgotten they grow them here.

"I feel like there's a million things to say, but I can't even think of one. Dad, do you... have any..."

He looks at me. "Do I have any what?"

"Any, I don't know, words of wisdom?"

He rolls his eyes. "Holy Christ! What am I, a fortune cookie?"

"Well, you know, any advice? Anything?"

"Don't act like you're trying to solve a mystery. I already told you everything you need to know. You already know it. It's your wife and daughter. That's it. Everything else is secondary."

"I know."

"Then why do you work so much?"

"Uh, I..."

"Stumped by an apparition. That's pretty weak, Steve," he says, shaking his head. "Do me a favor. Don't tell me you know. Just do what you're supposed to do. When things get hard someday, and they will get hard, and you and Tim are fighting, and you are feeling like you want to give up, that is when you have to remember it. When you have problems, work on them. Don't walk away. Stay there, even when it's hard. You got it?" he says, his eyes locked on mine.

"I will."

"Promise me."

"I promise, Dad." I say, my throat tightening, my voice sinking to a whisper.

The breeze gets stronger. A tuft of dad's wispy hair stands straight up for a moment before flopping back down.

"A breeze from the south," he says. "It always blows from the south in the afternoon. I'm gonna miss that. I'm gonna miss a lot of things," he says, and his eyes have gone misty too. He turns quickly away from me.

The breeze subsides and the porch goes almost completely silent. A bird sings, but it's far, far away and I can barely hear it.

Dad stands up, his wicker chair creaking slightly. "Gotta go inside. It's dinner time. These old fogies eat pretty early."

"Can I come, Dad?"

He shakes his head.


He takes a step towards me and rubs the back of my head with his big right hand. He used to do that years ago, when I would come home and complain of a lousy day at school.

"You wouldn't like the food anyway," he laughs, and turns toward the entrance. He takes a few steps and then turns back to me. "I want you to know I love you very much," he says, and I can barely see him through my tears.

"I love you too, Dad."

"See? We can say it after all!" he smiles, and as he walks toward the door, he seems younger somehow, his back straighter, his step lighter.

"Dad? Dad! Don't go yet!"

The bird sings again, closer now. I turn to look at him.

He sits on a branch, the upper part of his body a brilliant yellow, the rest a deep black. Chirrrp chirp chirp, he says, just three short syllables.

Chirrrp, chirp chirp.

This is all happening too quickly. I need to see my dad one more time, need to cast my eyes on him once more, even if it's just to watch him walk away.

I turn quickly to see him, but I'm all alone.