My dad recently turned 94 years old. That’s quite a monumental bench-mark, particularly when you take into account that he’s only recently given up his driver’s license and put his car on the market. If it weren’t for the crumbling ruin of his knees, he’d probably never have slowed down.
But he has. Time and disease are taking their toll on a body that would rather remain active, and his knees are the least of it. He has great hearing loss, although not as profound as my mother’s. (In a black humor-ish sort of way, it’s rather amusing to sit there and listen to them shout “Huh? What?” at each other.) Congestive heart failure makes steady progress, sapping him of energy. Although the doctor swears his lungs are clear (hard to imagine, and you don’t want to know my opinion of his doctor anyway), he is short of breath and frequently coughs, a wet rumble like someone with a heavy chest cold. Diabetes pares away the vague shadow of his remaining health. He’s retaining a gross amount of fluid, particularly in his legs and feet. He cannot force his feet into shoes, and barely into socks. He’s cut the legs off most of his trousers, turning them into shorts so he can tend the purple-red, swollen, dry, blistere and pebbled skin of his lower legs. There’s not much he can do for them, really. Soak them. Apply topical ointment that does more for him mentally than it does for his legs physically.
Time is running out. For his own sake, he doesn’t seem to much care. I have a hard time imagining my father enjoying life so it’s not surprising that he wouldn’t risk much emotion at the thought of leaving. Except when he thinks about my mother. Then his eyes fill with tears and his lower lip trembles. Sorrow fills his face. “I don’t want to leave her yet,” he says, his voice a soft lament. There’s not much I can say beyond, “I know, Dad.”
Slowly, my father has begun to go through his things, tossing out as he sees fit, passing on if he thinks someone might like a particular item. Recently, I came across his high school graduation yearbook, the Kingston (NY) High School Maroon. I found his picture (page 39, second row from the top, beside Genevieve T. Leahy, surrounded by Helen M. Leverich and David Liscom). I stared. Could this fair-haired eighteen year old really be my father? How had this mild-featured young man turned into the grumpy, unhappy individual I know? A comment reads: “With his sunny disposition, <he>is sure to brighten things up wherever he goes.”
My dad? Really?
I’d like to ask him what happened to change him. I know disappointment had something to do with it. A miserable upbringing. An early failed marriage. Dropping out of college (he’d hoped to be a dairyman) to join the Army and, somehow, never going back to finish his degree. Making friends (or thinking he’d made them), but then not having them stay in touch once time and circumstance put distance between them. He’s spent too much of his life lonely and afraid, and I suppose it just took its toll. But I can’t ask him for details, because I know from experience that he won’t talk about it. As for making a change, well, he’d say (has said) it’s too late in life to bother. Never having been the most introspective of men, I’m not sure it would even occur to him.
I wish he would. Here at the nth hour, such a conversion might help bridge the enormous gap that exists between us (between him and everyone). Never close, the years have done nothing to improve the situation and, frankly, neither have we. We’ve no idea how to approach each other, how to reach across the years that have been and connect in the now. We’ve never been connected. I could ask him for details of his past, but I know from prior experience how it would go. Dad trusts no one — not even his family — and he’s not about to start by divulging secrets.
I discovered another surprise in the pages of that yearbook — my father was involved in the Dramatics Club! Amazing. Astounding. Unthinkable. He served as part of the cast in “Au Marche,” “Hyacinths for Christmas,” and “Captain Applejack.” I was a member of the Drama Club in high school, too, and never knew that my father had trod the boards in his time. How nice it would have been had he shared that with me. I grew up thinking we had absolutely nothing in common, and yet there was this. I wonder if that has something to do with the reason he never attended a single one of my performances.
For the first time on this long road, I feel it’s likely that this will be the last year of my father’s life. While breath is drawn, it’s not too late for us to change, to connect, to make amends…but it takes two to dance that tango and my father — sadly — will not even hear the music.