Monday, December 10, 2018

Writing in the Past Tense

As he slowed down in his later years, my dad started spending more time in front of the television. Oh, he still puttered around the house, but more often than not, when I was home visiting, I'd find him dozing off in front of back-to-back episodes of American Pickers or Pawn Stars as the afternoon rolled over into evening. He liked TV in the mornings too, which always felt strange to me. The only time we had TV on in the mornings growing up was on Saturdays when we kids watched cartoons or Sundays when my dad watched the news-talk shows. But in Dad's later years, the TV came on early every day and pretty much stayed on. He usually woke before everyone else and started the coffee; I'd come downstairs a little later, pour myself a fresh cup of brew (he always made it weaker than I like) and go sit with him; we'd share out the measly sections of the ever-thinning Daily Freeman, talk about the demise of print journalism, and watch the chirpy hosts drink holiday cocktails on the morning talk shows.

Okay, that felt strange. My dad died only a week ago today, and already, I'm writing about him in the past tense.

In the week before he died, my 83-year-old dad had a heart attack. Then he had another. He was already a bit frail from some other health issues, and it turned out he had nearly total occlusions of three major vessels in his heart. He lived a few more days after we learned that, and we had hoped that he'd get stable enough to be a candidate for surgery. But he never did, and his terribly damaged heart could not be repaired. He passed away in the afternoon on December 3rd after being taken off of life-support devices that weren't doing him any good and that he didn't want.

On December 8th, the day after his funeral, I marked the one-year anniversary of my own catastrophic health episode – emergency surgery and hospitalization for a pericardial effusion caused by lung cancer. I almost died. This year, I lit a candle for my dad on that day, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, in the parish church where I grew up. And I know that's how it's supposed to go, the child says a final farewell to the parent. And it almost happened the other way around, so I'm grateful for the grief, that I'm still here to carry it, and, I hope, to be of some use to my mom and sisters. But still, I miss my dad, his gravelly voice, his gruffness, his tender heart. It's Monday morning at my parents' house, my childhood home, and no one has made coffee. The TV isn't on. Yet.

I got to say a few words about my dad at his funeral, and I read one of my favorite poems, "Let Evening Come" by Jane Kenyon. My dad wasn't much for poetry, but I think he would have appreciated Kenyon's work. The imagery of this poem reminds me of our family farm out in the Catskills, a place my dad loved.

Anyway, here's what I said about my dad:

My dad was a handsome man. He looked great in a tux, and his smile dazzled. No wonder my mom decided to keep writing letters to the young Marine she met on that bus between Kingston and Albany so many years ago. We’re glad she did.

One of the earliest memories I have of my dad isn’t of him exactly, but of his voice, a little gravelly, a little gruff, coming to me across a darkened room. We’re watching some silent home movies my parents had made of themselves on a great American road trip they’d taken before any of us kids were born. Dad is narrating the footage of him at the rim of the Grand Canyon.  In the movie, he’d repeatedly walk up to the rim, look down and spread his arms as if he were getting ready to fly out over it; then he’d turn around, waving and smiling, walk toward the camera, and then walk daringly backwards toward the edge. “Don’t worry,” he’d say, as the movie projector chattered over my childish gasps. “I didn’t fall off.”

In addition to being a terrible kidder, my Dad was an artist. I know that might sound strange since we have no evidence, no paintings or sculptures, no mixed media.  But my dad was a champion sand castle builder. In the summers when our family was lucky enough to get a week’s vacation at Cape Cod, he’d spend much of a day digging with us in the sand until we’d built something impressive, a castle with a moat and towers or a pyramid that would rival the ancients.  At the end of the day, we’d walk away satisfied, not caring what the ocean would do.

You could say he was that way about the many small businesses he owned over the years. He’d build them from nothing into something kind of impressive; not big, exactly, or elaborate, but something that worked, that stood for awhile; then he’d let them go. He could never really work “for” someone; he needed autonomy to fulfill his own vision, like any artist.

Dad loved the Yankees, always, though he respected the Red Sox. His love for the Bronx Bombers is well-documented from his early days; in a photo album from his childhood, he kept an autographed photo of Joe DiMaggio, ticket stubs and a score card. When he and my mom were out and about doing things on a day the Yanks were playing, he’d remind her, sometimes to the point of annoyance, that they had to get home so he could watch the game.

But more than he loved the Yankees, my dad loved us. Always a soft-touch and perhaps overly generous with his daughters, tenderhearted and gentle, proud to be married to a well-educated and accomplished woman. And gosh did the two of them look great on the dance floor together at all those fabulous Italian weddings we had over the years. He cared for us all as best he could, and we’re grateful to be his family.

Cartographies and Cancer

I love maps. I love how each offers the cartographer's idiosyncratic vision of a place. We can map pretty much anything. Houses on a h...