Sunset, November, Rosh Kodesh, the Sea of Cortez, a new century. A cloudless western sky hangs out miles of thick sea mist, reflecting the cast of the fading day’s colors: rose, salmon, rust, gold, faint yellows, then white, purple, pewter, black. The pounded thin silver of the new moon is cupped above the Tetas de Cabra, sharp rock silhouettes in the near distance of the liquid evening.
All about me I hear the voices and psalms of cycles. A tide turns here, now. Slick sand reflects light from the turning planets’ faint light. The slim moon carries the sun, still, into the vault of the night. Calls of terns and gulls and the last dusk circling pelicans tuck the day songs’ flights into night’s sea-washed silence.
In this unhurried stillness, I think of my aged father. I am a widowed only child, only son of my widowed father. I see him now as I saw him last, perhaps three weeks ago.
Not sitting, exactly, but somehow in his cancerous bones alighted in a wheelchair. Not frail, but delicate. Neither alert nor dulled. Quite present, quiet. Gentle, gentle wisps of pure white hair grace the sides of his thinly boned head; blue veins next the surface of his scalp seem to plot endless options on a parchment map. His goatee is gentlemanly; he is a gentleman, and a gentle man.
His hands, skeletal and beautiful, do not so much hold the newspaper I have just handed him, as cradle it, caress it. He is at the Nurses Station at the T intersection of his nursing wing. Two of my three sons and I had just moved him into this wing of his retirement village’s hospital facility a few days ago. Assisted Living on the same campus could no longer adapt to his increasing need for care: pain, forgetfulness, falls, more pain, confusion.
In this moment he is not confused. I kneel beside him, put my shaky hand on his thin arm.
“I’m going now. I love you. I’ll call on Sunday.”
Minimalist sentences for me. Ten words. Only sixty of my years to his eighty-eight. Huge amounts of information in a few seconds. Spoken slowly, so he can absorb. So I can speak at all.
I rise, and pause to kiss him on his forehead.
“OK now,” he says. “I’m glad you came. Have a good flight.”
His upper plate swims around in his shrunken mouth, muffling his speech. A detail of tending to his dying had been a visit together to his dentist. We planned a padding for the plate, to provide some comfort. Comfort. Another cycle song. In the beginning, there was this, and now in this ending, there is this. In the beginning was the end. Nurse. Feed. Comfort. Bathe. Talk to. Tell stories.
After we had returned to his retirement village from the dentist earlier that day, I had told Dad one of his favorite stories. He used to tell it in great detail; no embellishment, just detail. One of several stories from his early days as a weather observer, days which coincided with what we call the early days of motored air flight. Dad’s specialty was briefing aviators on what could be known about the weather aloft on their routes: Buffalo to Erie to Cleveland, Buffalo to Rochester to New York, the long reaches of open cockpit bi-planes.
I told the story with less detail. We sat in my rented car in the village’s main parking lot. He was clear, lucid. I can always sense his open moments. It’s in his eyes. In his stillness and serenity and wonderment, his eyes snap.
The story goes like this. 1929: On a quiet evening at the Buffalo airport, a pilot friend invites Dad to go up for a spin after Dad’s shift in the weather station. The pilot needs some log time on a new plane, Dad loves to be up in the air. Take-off is routine. Dad is in the front cockpit, the pilot behind him. They spiral upward into the summer night, level off at several thousand feet. The pilot shuts off the engine. They drift. “Sure is quiet up here when you turn off the fan,” says the pilot. He jockeys the Jenny’s nose downward. The pitch and speed increase. The wind sings in the struts and fabric, in my father’s face and in my father’s blood. Above the wind scream, the pilot shouts at Dad, “Now this is where the wings fall off…”
Obviously, Dad lived to tell the story. Engine starts up, they land.
I told the story back to my father that late morning in order to go on to say to him that I knew his wings had fallen off. That the diagnosis was grim, that the disease was fatal, that we didn’t have much time left here, that I would miss him. That all the medical protocols were focused on his comfort, that there was no coming back.
I finished. Dad turned to me, eyes snapping. “Well, son, right now I have to pee, and if you don’t get me to a bathroom quick, I’ll wet my pants right here.”
I whooped and laughed, hauled myself out of the car, whipped open the trunk, flipped the wheelchair into full flight shape, lifted my father softly out of his seat into the chair, and through my bittersweet tears, ran at gallop-speed into the village’s reception lobby, passing incredulous, gaping residents along the way, and zing-o to the Men’s Room just in the knick of.
Ah, Dad …
There are as many ways to remember you as there are waves upon this dusk-spread sea. As many scenes, your gifts to me, as the stars now beginning to accent the night. This is the one that emerges from the mists and the tide.
Over thirty years ago. In 1971 you were roughly my age now. I’d been abroad for five years with my young family, and you’d been deprived of on-the-spot grand-parenting to your three grandsons. Back in the States now, while you and Mom are not making up for the lapsed time, because that’s not your style, still you make the most of any opportunity to visit—as do we. You’re visiting now. A brief vacation. Still working, still a meteorologist, now upgraded to forecaster, still a pilot briefer, and now a local radio personality as well: forecasts live from the Harrisburg Airport weather station.
We’re in Denver. Three lively, active, smart boys: eleven, eight, six. It’s fall. One of our favorite rough-and-tumbles this time of year is full-tackle football. Very few rules: stay on your side of the ball until it’s snapped, TDs scored when nobody can catch you, out-of-bounds are the ends of the earth and then some.
We drive, noisily squeezed all together in our Datsun station wagon, to Boulder, seven of us. The air is crisp, our good spirits are delicious, we have the football with us. We stop at a park beneath the Flatirons. We pile out, the boys have the football already in the air.
Dad, on these trips you usually manned the camera, taking all those slides that now fill the cartons we euphemistically call “the family archives.” While Mom directed the scenes to shoot. While we happily joined the lusty chaos of the boys, and romped. But this day was different. The air, the altitude, the wondrous car-packed energy, the sheer handsomeness of the day and the family, I don’t know. Anyway, for the first time ever, you wanted to play football too.
Did I give it a thought then? I don’t know that, either. You’re in your early sixties, trim, but never athletic. You picked up swimming laps, I recall, only at age sixty-seven.
So the boys are ecstatic. They tell you the rules, all together, in a jingling, giggling chorus of their anticipation of the play to begin. Picking sides is easy. The mother and the grandmother are designated fans, cheerleaders and photographers. Otherwise, it’s them against us. The three fearsome kids, and the father-son team.
remember, Dad, your unlikely gear: lace-tied cordovans, gray flannel slacks, white shirt, no tie, dark blue wool cardigan, pipe in the pocket.
We agreed on the rough direction of play. We lost the toss and kicked off. The boys are suddenly very serious. It’s easy to spot their offense though. Whatever the play called in their huddle, the eleven-year-old gets the ball. Except on trick plays. Then the six-year old gets the ball. But he has to lateral it to the eleven-year old. The eight-year old is center, blocking back, decoy receiver, sometime quarterback. They’re having a great time. They score; you and I can’t catch the eleven-year old as he finally scampers into the woods.
They kick off. We down the ball. Our play is not fancy. You center to me, fake a fade for a pass, while I bounce around screaming, “Red Dog, Hup, Hup, Black Cat, Three, Three, Buppy Gup, Dagger Doosey, Diarrhea …” The boys are paralyzed with laughter. You circle around behind me, I lateral to you, and we race off down the park with me as your blocker. Except the boys are on to the play now, and fast, and small, and I can’t weasel down to block them, and they zip past me in their jouncing, squirrely herd to go after Grandpa with the ball.
Now I’m paralyzed. I have no place to go, so I just stop and watch. You zig, you zag, you zig again, you bounce, you twirl on one foot, on two feet, you wiggle…you slip. They’re on you, hard. I mean hard. Calf, knee, waist; it’s full-contact tackle, after all.
One of those frozen-in-amber, slow-mo, for-all-time pictures. You hold the football high in the air ahead of you, as if you’re gunning to some imaginary end zone. Your still thick, brown and graying hair is a marvelous flying helmet. You look tremendously puzzled, banged out of breath, and you’re laughing. You topple like a giant timber, three miniature Paul Bunyons wrapped around your trunk. You don’t so much fall as fly low for several yards further on in the direction of your last zag, while the angle of your now eight-legged body distinctly moves from vertical to horizontal. I’d swear to this day that I heard bone-crack, muscle-tear, joint-snap, rib-break, gut-rip, nose-crunch in your tumultuous smash to the last green grass of the Colorado fall.
None of it. You are up, still puzzled looking, breathless, still laughing, gasping, ready for the next play. I don’t remember much about the game after that, only more happy noise, the sheer fun of it all, the ice cream on the way home, the boys’ delight in an awesome victory, the drive in the dark, the settling quiet of the ensuing night.
It is your free flying fall, your still young and graceful face I remember, the lovely entanglement of your body with my bright, keen boys, while I stood there aghast, locked in my nano-second fear that you would be crushed and broken. Your breathless look. Your quizzical glimpse of something that had stopped you cold in your dancing tracks, and then the accepting whoosh of wind and laughter.
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