The Naval station where we lived when I was a child sat on the edge of Lake Michigan. Unlike Jacksonville where we moved after my father retired, a cold snap did not bring the city to a standstill. After fifty years I still remember one frosty morning in 1958 when my mother bundled me up, kissed the tiny bit of uncovered cheek and pushed me out the door towards the bus stop.
Dressed from head to toe in winter clothes made walking difficult. Buttoned from the neck down, my coat, made of some kind of fake fur, proved to be more show than substance. My head sagged from the weight of a matching hat cinched under my chin with little fur balls hanging from the ties. Mittens kept my hands warm but rendered them useless. Heavy cotton tights covered my legs. Rubber galoshes fit over black and white oxfords. Wrapped from head to toe I waddled out the door like a well-wrapped mummy.
What might have been the perfect setting for a Currier and Ives Christmas card, looked more to me, at my tender age of seven, like pictures I’d seen of Russia where the Communists lived. This must be what my parents meant when they talked about the Cold War. To get to my bus stop I had to cross an icy street and climb a frozen hill. The same hill I could navigate with ease on a carefree summer afternoon posed a forbidding frozen challenge.
My first attempt at the hill was valiant but unsuccessful. I made it half-way up before beginning to slide back down. My rubberized feet had no traction. With nothing to grasp but ice I took an ungraceful tumble. I stood and ventured upward several more times. Each endeavor, however, met with the same result; I wasn’t getting anywhere. Eventually, with a flare for the dramatic, I lay on my snow-crusted stomach and attempted to swim uphill like a love sick salmon heading for the Promised Land. Still I could only get so far before sliding backwards.
Giving up I lay on the frosty sidewalk waiting for whatever came first, summer or the Russians. Sunlight reflected off the ice. Tears froze to my face, blurring my vision even further. I sensed rather than saw a figure standing over me. My father reached down and helped me up.
Today my father is 93 years old. He has cancer. Most of his days are spent in quiet solitude, yet like an old lion whose teeth have gone the way of his youth, Dad still, on occasion, throws back his head and lets out a timeless roar. In a bittersweet turn of events the man who has always been in charge cannot control his own passing. Sitting at the kitchen table doing crossword puzzles, he withers at a slow pace.
Not long ago, in an unexpected burst of energy, Dad decided to sort through every closet in the house. Unsure if he was looking for something in particular or just wanted to clean house, I was enlisted to help. I got to hold the flashlight.
Dad has lived in the same house since 1962. Over the years the room that sits atop the garage has been a repository of things my mother, if given the slightest opportunity, would have tossed in the garbage years ago. A self-proclaimed pack rat, my father holds onto stuff he can’t even remember. He rooted through musty cardboard boxes as if on a treasure hunt.
Dad’s hands, covered with skin made fragile by blood thinners, lingered over every re-discovered prize. An intricately carved monkeypod statue from his time overseas; a pen set with interchangeable nibs given to him by former shipmates; inflatable mattresses that no longer inflate. It seemed obvious to me that most of this stuff was useless, but my father handled everything from broken picture frames to rusted out camping gear as if cradling a newborn baby. Lost in thought and memories, Dad took his time. I, on the other hand, grew restless. I had trouble understanding the significance of possessions that had been locked away and long forgotten. Why didn’t he just throw it all in the trash and be done with it?
Like a SCUD missile finding its target a jolt of sudden awareness jogged me from my self-indulgent indifference, This exercise had more to do with grieving than cleaning. My father’s fading memories and palsied hands joined together as if dancing to a melody only he could hear. Once I understood this was something Dad must complete at his own pace, I sank down in an old chair covered in fading chintz to wait. I didn’t want to rush him. I did my best to give him a quiet, sacred space to savor his memories and make his farewells.
In the stillness of the room, I became aware of my father’s labored breathing as he pulled a heavy coat from the the cedar lined chest he’d given my mother as an engagement present. Tarnished gold buttons that once passed military inspection and holes large enough to poke your fingers through were proof that there is no need for a wool overcoat in Florida.
After a while, the boxes were re-sealed and stuffed back in the closet. Dad appeared weary, anxious to return to the comfort of his chair. I’ve learned my father prefers to have no help at all rather than too much. Turning off the light, I stood behind him aware that if he tripped all I could do was watch as he tumbled. I needn’t have worried. Dad can still find a solution to most any problem. Undaunted by the flight of stairs before him, he dropped to his butt. Too weary to walk down ten steps the man, who once helped me scale a snowy hill, ka-thumped his way down the stairs.
Goodbye upstairs, Dad said resting on the bottom step. There was finality in his voice, strangely strong and frail at the same time. As he attempted to stand on tired legs, I reached down to help him up.
Mary R. Ellington June 2010