"How are you?" she asks, and I am not accustomed to so many people asking me how I am but I know why they do. Fine, fine, I say, and how are you? I get an update on the neck condition, another doctor, another procedure. She had stopped in to visit Dad and she said, "you know that was the first time I saw your dad . . ." and I thought she was going to finish by saying laugh or smile or seem happy as I was amazed Dad had granted her an audience in the first place. But instead, "break down," was what she said. "There were tears in his eyes," Leona said, and he talked about how he sits in his chair and thinks about all the nights Mom would sit next to him on the other side of the little table.
Every night they would sit quietly together watching history documentaries, Dr. Zhivago, and country music awards (Mom had a crush on Kenny Rogers.) And they would read. Dad with his non-fiction, and Mom with her magazines, clipping recipes and funny little articles to send to far away grandchildren. She had a odd range of reading choices, from biographies on the Kennedys to the sports page, to the stories in Vanity Fair and Men's Journal.
During Mom's last hospitalization I had stopped at Dad's one evening and was overwhelmed by how strong her presence dominated the home. She was everywhere, dried flower wreaths, recipes on the bulletin board, her letters, her ivies, she was the pulse of this household. With my mother missing it was like a body without a heart.
After her death I can understand Dad's rush to get Mom's presence out of his physical environment. After all, he was always the guy who unwrapped his Christmas presents and stowed them all away five minutes later. But he sometimes moved too hastily with my mother's belongings and I am still dealing with the medical equipment store who want their rented youth folding walker back. The nursing home Dad had donated it to two days after her demise really does not want to go through their entire inventory of walkers. I spent several sweaty afternoons packing up the holiday decorations, numerous knickknacks, and dresser drawers of clothing. The items lay in boxes in the basement for a couple of weeks waiting for Leona to pack into her car and take to the nursing home where she and Mom had played cards. Dad, interestingly, did not mind. Several times I dropped in and sat on the steps looking down on the boxes knowing that Mom was there, still there, in a way. The last time I stopped, Dad was not at home and neither were the boxes. Just an imprint on the carpet where they had been. I had the same feeling as I did in the hospital when she finally, finally died. Relief, and then a vast ache for something I still could not identify.
I know my Dad cries. A few years ago he had a chronic back condition that slowly began to rob him of the ability to walk. He became frail and thin, an uncustomary paleness about him as he was no longer going for long hikes or riding in the convertible with Mom. I feared for his mental state as he did not know how to cope with a situation beyond his control. His strict rearing as a boy (my grandmother was not allowed to hold him as a baby when he cried - this was the current infant care philosophy at the time) and his training as a Marine rendered him absolute and rigid in his definition of endurance. There had never been any education for dealing with relentless, chronic pain. He had always been healthy.
The injury and pain had made a large transformation in my father that would not be apparent at first. My niece Rachel, an orthopedic nurse from Florida, visited with my father at this time and was a great asset in terms of her medical knowledge and support. My father told me that when she left to return home he later cried. This was a revelation for him and I know it was frightening. He could not explain this or fit it into his indestructible image of himself. "Dad, you're depressed," I told him, "crying is a natural response in your condition." I knew he was not comforted or convinced by my words.
After the pain was gone and he was his usual tanned, handsome self my oldest son, Jason, returned from Colorado for a visit. He likes to hug people now, I warned him, as my father approached. Sonny had started doing this after his recovery . We are not a physically affectionate family and we do not hug. This does not mean we do not feel deep affection we just prefer some distance. And Dad hugged Jason. My son looked at me over Dad's shoulder and we shared a small smile. These days Jason hugs more freely and I can tell he respects my father's gesture.
Dad will be all right. And Leona, too, although she also suffers a sad, sad pain. She lost a funny and generous husband, one whom I would scrabble to sit next to so I could hear the jokes. He smoked cigars, and they eventually killed him, but I still love the smell of cigar smoke. Flash (seriously) wore red one-piece jumpsuits drank 18 beers when he built the cement basement of our cottage and kept a prayerbook on the back of the toilet. They had no children but filled their lives with good deeds and anonymous donations and plenty of euchre games at various taverns about town. My mother once told Leona that her new medication would cost her $100 monthly and how would she afford this? On the first day of every month, Flash would tuck a $100 bill in Mom's pocket. Flash's nickname for Mom was Murph, although she had no explanation for that. Flash was buried in his jumpsuit with a beer and a cigar and Leona wore her black leather biker combo complete with cap and boots to the wake, much to the chagrin of my mother. "Look at what she's wearing," Mom whispered fiercely to me as we waited in line. "She looks great," I said and pushed her along.