Friday, August 28, 2009

Bon Vivant

It has been years since I’ve spent this much time with my Dad, and in my whole life, I don’t think we’ve ever been “just the two of us” for anything like the length of time of these five days. So it has been interesting for me to observe my Dad—and myself! Are our parents predictors for our own aging? Or are they merely possibilities for us, to choose to grow into or not?

“Youth in Age:” Last night at the restaurant to which we went for Dad’s 88th (a steak place, so he could have “beef and a baked,” his favorite fare), we met the owner, Steve, and were waited on by a man, Gary. The former was maybe in his 50’s, the latter, maybe in his 40’s. Both asked my father’s age—and commented on how young he looked! “I hope I look like you when I’m your age,” Gary said—and in our family’s typical modesty, my Dad replied something to the effect that he hoped that Gary would never look like him! And I thought: You should have seen him years ago, especially before my mother died, when, indeed, Dad did look younger than his years. And maybe he still does now, to others, except not to me.

I wonder: Am I seeing my father? Or am I seeing myself, years from now, and thus feeling my own aging displayed before me? I don’t have the stake in seeing him as younger than he is—and he does not himself, for that matter. But the ways others view him is informative, if not instructive.

“Paternal Example:” Along these lines, my father has been a “meat and potatoes” man all of his life. I asked him if he wanted something “green” with his meal, and he laughed and waved me off! Other evenings, the restaurants where we’ve dined have served us salads. Dad pushes his away after a few token bites, and refers to how that would better serve his “special lady friend.” In California, I am immersed in a culture of health-obsession. Every item for intake is weighed and measured for its nutritional benefit or risk. One’s weight is a subject of constant worry, and the concern for “aging well—if at all” is ubiquitous. My Dad is oblivious to any and all of these concerns. Freed from the constant anxiety of eating right, he eats abominably—and prospers. When on the odd occasion he finds himself weighed and measured by medical personnel, he is told he has the BP of a 20 y/o and the triglycerides of a man half his age. Years ago when I, who eat my broccoli and spinach with ritual rigor, was finding myself with rising BP and the threat of either taking medication or stroking out, I asked my Dad whether he had encountered the same malady as he got older. I was looking for a genetic link. Instead, my Dad was merely confused: High BP? What’s that? This was as foreign and distant a phenomenon to him as maybe the likelihood that our President would be African American.

I wonder: My father’s diet has served him, if not well, at least not poorly, all of these 88 years. I should live so long! So why do I concern myself as I do with what I eat? I surely have other things to worry about! What I tell myself is: My family is “Mediterranean” in extraction—meaning, not only are the meat and potatoes OK, but a little red wine would only help. Pickling is another way of “aging well.”

“Hail Fellow, Well Met—Especially by the Ladies:” Watching my father make the acquaintance of waitresses and female salespeople and service personnel is observing a master. With a twinkle in his eye and a grin on his face, he greets, and quips, and jests until, in a surprised and often shy way, the woman’s face mirrors the twinkle and the grin she was given. My Dad is all rapport and repartee. She responds more often than not in kind, and a certain warmth surrounds the two as they realize that they can enjoy each other’s company. My Dad is not a flirt! But he does come alive in the exchange, and he does take pleasure in the conversation not being business-as-usual. So there is a kind of gentle seduction that takes place: an invitation, a dance, and gracious bow and curtsey of gratitude when the music of the moment stops. My father put the fox in fox trot.

I wonder: Would my children, who are often embarrassed by my behavior with waitresses--or my friends, who are (thankfully) more often bemused—feel the same way about it if they realized that I was unconsciously emulating my father? Or do I lack his grace, so that I am more accurately becoming the “dirty old man” my father has so obviously avoided being?

“Man to Man:” One of the joys for me about my relationship with my Dad is the level of our conversations. This level has deepened since my mother died, at least, so it seems to me. We speak not only as father and son, but also as men, about being men. As one might guess, “being men” often means “in relationship with women!” For the differences and mysteries of our genders continues to fascinate us both. But it also means that we share a commonality of experience as well as perspective. The bluff and bluster of masculinity bonds my Dad and me, and I thank him for that, since too often fathers and sons compete, and rivalry replaces respect. I think the nature of father-son bonds begins with the father; the father sets the tone and the terms. I haven’t always liked or responded well to the terms my father set, but now… now we are close. And relaxed. And easy-going. And comfortable in a shared and special intimacy. I am grateful.

I wonder: I hope I am the father my Dad is to me to my children, and especially to my sons. I hope that I live long enough to feel that our relationships have matured in this way. I am glad that both my father and I have lived long enough to have come to the relationship we now share. And I know that it means a lot to my Dad, too, because, if I know one thing about my Dad, it is that a deep love and respect for his father abides in him. Perhaps good fathering can be inherited.

Captain, My Captain

The morning of my father’s 88th birthday eased itself over the mountainside and nestled in the bosom of the Lake like a grateful lover. It was cooler than it had been all week, but no less bright for that, and the sky was dashed with clouds, just enough for the winds aloft to smear shapes—“There’s an eagle!” my Dad cried—that invited our imaginations and gave a shifting canopy to the calmed water. The Lake borrowed some blue from the sky, making the horizon pale in donation, but the trees’ green kept them each in their own place, a blanket of discretion between intimate friends.

My father’s fears were relieved. He had worried that he’d “blown his chance” at a beautiful time on the Lake by his inadvertent plunge two days before. But as we stood lakeside again, this time more patient with the process of boat delivery, he could see the water was just as calm, and the sun was burning off what morning mist remained. It was better in fact, for the air being cooler. And we were less rushed—so we had cooler heads as well!

The high school student who went over the checklist of operational “do’s and don’t’s” turned out to be a jazz trombonist—just like my Dad and I! It was as if more than one sort of legacy of the Lake was being handed down.

Once we were checked out, we headed out, Dad at the wheel, I in the bow, for “ballast,” er, balance! Dad was, well, “heady” about his being at last on the Lake. We shot out the gate, and were movin’! We headed counterclockwise, which was right, or starboard as the case might be. In either case, we were at it! We headed towards where we were staying, then up along the coast until we got to the dam, then back to open water—a signal to Dad to open it up. We got to be movin’! It was fun!
I sat in the front, snapping pictures. Dad was in his element, on the Lake, livin’ and re-livin’. He was often so deep in memory that he didn’t respond to my requests to slow down or stop so I could take a clearer picture. We went on, past White Beauty, around the back of The Island, around The Other Island, across the other side of the Lake from which we owned, down into where the Lake narrowed again, and back in towards The Bridge. End to end, Dam to Bridge. Not quite record time, but, quickly enough.

Then back out again. This time, we were to pass in front of the property he and Mom once owned. I asked him to go slow, so we could see where it was. We still missed it! We took pix at the neighbor’s house, distracted by a huge blue heron that had landed on a float nearby. Eventually, we got it right. We headed out.

There was where we used to put the boat in and take it out. There was where we first spent Summers at the Lake. Here was the narrow straight were we used to swim from the beach to the Island—and in the good old days, ski from the beach, around the Island, and back to the beach, letting go into stand up landings... Those were the good old days, before increased boat traffic and regulations!

As we crossed over into the now extinct White Beauty View area where the Lake widens and is chronically rough (the Lake’s version of Tierra del Fuego), Dad let me take the wheel. This turned out to be a bold move on his part: he had to sit in the bow across the roughest water, into increased boat traffic. This was going to be a bumpy, kidney-bustin’ ride for him no matter how much I moderated our speed. Weaving around skiers and fishers we made it back to base—too early! I took us out across the Lake and around the Lake’s largest island, before I headed us back.
All I wanted to do was extend Dad’s ride. He was in near-ecstasy. He kept praising God, saying how wonderful the day was, and marveling at the weather. It truly was a joy to behold—for both of us.

Once we got back on shore, and on with the day, Dad kept talking about it. Evaporated in the heat of the experience was his fear that he had “spoiled” things earlier. Instead he was flush with the realization that all had gone well, splendidly even, and most likely in a manner fitting to the best that could be. All was right with the world, for my Dad.

For me, it was a once in a lifetime experience. I kept thinking: I am glad that I lived this long, to have this kind of time with my Dad. I kept wondering: Will any of my children think about what might please me this way should I get to be 88? I kept believing: I’m glad that I had the courage of my whimsy and arranged for the possibility of this day.

The very best thing was to see my Dad behind the wheel, making his own “road,” leaving his own wake. More than driving a car, driving a boat brings out my Dad’s true nature.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Drive to Live, Live to Drive

To know my father is to know how important driving an automobile is to him. He is seldom more “at home” than when he’s behind the wheel—which is precisely, of course, when he is not at home! There is something spiritual in the synergy of the man, the car and the road that elevates his spirits and centers him in himself.

So when I got off the train, and as we loaded my bags into the back of his car, and I offered to drive to the Lake, I wasn’t surprised when he said, “No, I’ll drive. I know where I’m going.” And yes, he usually does. But he would also drive even if he didn’t know where he was going!

The drive up to the Lake let me know how well my father was doing. We see each other once a year now. I carry these memories of my father’s basic condition through the intervening year. This is base-line data gathering. And since his driving is his m├ętier, his most comfortable environment, this is the ideal setting to see him at his best.

My Dad’s driving gave me little cause for concern. At no point did I feel that we were going to careen suddenly off the road, and out into the woods or over into the valley! His speed was what it always is—heck, what mine always is!—just a tad too fast for conditions. But that’s OK—his Odyssey has airbags!

His confidence behind the wheel is the best measure of his confidence in himself. So when he asked me to drive yesterday after his fall, he in effect told me how he was. And when he told me to drive us to dinner, I knew he had not fully recovered confidence in himself. Today he simply took the wheel and got us to and from the grocery store. If he’s not yet his “old self” again, he’s at least feeling more like it.

Of increasing significance is why he drives. He drives for therapy. He drives to grieve the loss of my mother. He is a driving Descartes: I drive, therefore I am. Not just around the block, either: He drives to the Jersey shore if need be! Some days he needs more healing than others…

None of this matters all that much in itself; what matters is what it portends for the future. What will happen when the day comes that Dad is told he is not to drive? I fear for him for that day. My Dad has made it, quite likely, as long as he has because his major strength in life is a kind of stubbornness. He got it from his mother, but he has parlayed stubbornness into a fine art!

My Dad exhibits a stubborn refusal to change. Oh, life and its circumstances change around him, and he adjusts all right to them. He is not delusional in his stubbornness. He knows his wife of 64 years, the most wonderful woman in the world, has died. He’s not in denial.

What he is deep into is stubbornness: he will drive until they pry the keys from his hand! THE most frightening event in his recent life was not when he woke from a nap with a non-functioning right hand and waited overnight to call for an ambulance so he could be examined at the hospital. No, the most frightening event was needing to have his driver’s license renewed—a procedure that required a note from his eye doctor about his vision, and a driver’s test. He passed the whole procedure with flying colors, and thus got a new lease on life.

For the moment, we (his children and the rest of the world) can breathe easy. He’s still a good driver. Will he ever know when he is not a good driver? Maybe not. As it is, he sits uneasily in the passenger seat, even when he consents to be driven. There is a car commercial that says something to the effect of: “In life, some of us are passengers, others of us are drivers.” My Dad is a driver; he does not handle being driven well.

In this regard, there is a verse in John’s Gospel that suggests my father to me whenever I hear it. To paraphrase, Jesus tells us that, whereas at the moment we are able to get up every morning and put our clothes on and go about our days as we choose, the day is coming when someone else will get us up, will put our clothes on us, and will take us where they want us to go!

That day is coming for me, I know. That day is coming for my Dad, too. I dread it more for him than I do for myself, frankly.

Of course, he could always surprise me! I’m always glad to be surprised…

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Boat Enthusiast

This trip is something of a remembrance of things past. So we have visited places that we knew when… IF they are still there! And we have dreamed of past glories.

Many of those glorious moments were spent on the water here. We water skied behind and rode in the various boats my father owned. He still fondly tells the story of his taking possession of the last boat he owned—actually, of how it took possession of him! For my Dad, it was love at first sight with that boat. And he showed that boat his love as long as she was in his life…

That’s the way my Dad is… He was, of course, the same way with my Mom.

No wonder, then, that once he saw the Lake, Dad thought about being on the Lake. We went looking for a place that rented boats.

We found two: one, near where we are staying; the other, near where we used to live. We chose the one near where we are staying because the boat was likely to be better—meaning, bigger, faster, and sleeker. My Dad may drive an Odyssey but his heart is built for speed!

We signed up, and watched a video designed to reacquaint us with the Rules of the Water, but we were like two kids in school—not paying attention to the lesson, and copying off of each other’s papers. We were know-it-alls! Lessons? We don’t need no stinkin’ lessons! They gave us our temporary licenses anyway… After all, how much trouble could we get into on the water?

Thing is, we never made it to the water—at least, not the way that we had planned. The folks with the boats were having a little trouble getting the one they were renting to us ready to go out. So my Dad and I had time on our hands. We walked down the ramp to the lakeside. We waited.

I could feel the restlessness grow in my Dad. He was impatient to get out on the water. I was looking out at the Lake, enjoying the day and the moment, when suddenly I felt my Dad was not there with me. I turned to see my Dad, like toddler, making it toward the dock. He got on the ramp, and negotiated its narrowness—until he had to step down more than 18 inches from the ramp to the dock’s gangway. As he did, the gangway sank with his weight into the water, and Dad pitched forward. He landed on the gangway, and rolled over onto his back, but into the water. By the time I got to him, he was flailing to keep his head above water and regain his feet. I reached down and grabbed his hand—but it wasn’t the sort of grip you see in the movies! Still, it steadied him, and he stood up in the water.

I spoke to him calmly, gently and firmly: “Dad, see if you can kneel on the dock.” He got one knee up, then the other. He shifted, putting his back to me. I asked if he could get his feet underneath him. He could, but only with his hands on the dock to steady him as his legs shook. He went back to his knees—and started to crawl away from the shore, toward where the dock widened. I called to him, “Dad, if you’re gonna crawl, crawl toward the shore!” He turned around and crawled toward me.

At that point, I kneeled on the gangway, and my Dad rose to his feet with both hands on my shoulders. Then I got up, turned around, told my Dad to put his hands on my shoulders again, and we walked in tandem off the gangway, over the ramp, and back onto the shore.

There we assessed the damage: the back of his left hand was bleeding, and he was pretty shaken up, his eyes wide, his breathing shallow and rapid. He leaned on me as we walked together back up the hillside. We spoke to the owner’s son about what had happened, and he got Dad some first aid. Then I walked my Dad to the car, where he sat while I backed us out of our boat ride and completed some paperwork.

I knew my Dad was still shaken by this turn of events because, when I asked him for the car keys, he surrendered them without a murmur.

Once home, we almost literally had to wring my Dad out! I told him he was one big sponge! Thank goodness it was one of the warmest days of the year! More, thank goodness my Dad was not hurt worse. Being the man he is, he was more embarrassed than anything, except maybe regretful that he “wasted” a beautiful day on the Lake. I said, “Dad, there’s always tomorrow. Maybe today just wasn’t our day. Maybe we rushed things.” He nodded his head in affirmation—and told me I was to drive the car to dinner.

I don’t think that even Proust could have ever imagined that sort of ending to our day.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Geezers and Tweezers

When I got off the train in Lansdale, having flown all night in a clean but crowded plane, and having endured a city’s public transport through its bowels, I lumbered my luggage down the steps and emerged into the bright, clean air of Montgomery County. I trundled myself and my baggage across the platform toward the station, looking all the way for my father. He was nowhere to be seen. I stood at the curb, lost, waiting to be found.

After several long minutes, a small man emerged from the parking lot, on semi-certain steps, his scant, grayed hair catching what sunlight it could, like a tattered flag would the wind. I kept looking for my father.

But as he came closer, I realized that this indeed was my father, now in a somewhat diminished version. He no longer had the dark hair and firm gait of a man half his age; now he had been fitted with a more appropriate appearance. And my heart sank, just a little, for I, too, aged in that moment. We were growing older of a sudden, the way it happens when we look into the mirror, not in the casual way of looking past ourselves, but in that glance-snatching, gaze-holding way of seeing on the surface the evolution that has been etching underneath all the while we have not been paying attention.

Two older men made their way to my Dad’s car.

My father, now, on the doorstep of his 88th birthday, was officially a Geezer. By “Geezer,” I mean a wise and wizened, well-aged fellow, who, by years and maturity, deserved the title. Not merely “senior,” my Dad had come into something more than his own, more than age alone could confer. He’d become a Geezer.

I, on the other hand, still hoped to have Geezerhood out in front of me somewhere, like an anticipated land to which I’d want to travel, but not just yet, thank you very much. Yet, I knew I was no longer the middle-aged man who was at the top of his powers—as we are told we are or can be when we first show the signs of aging and grey at the temples and sag in the middle. I had been graying and sagging for too long now already! So what was I, then? Growing out of middle age, but not yet fully into Geezerhood, how was I to call my “in between” self?

I decided to think of myself as a “Tweezer.” Just as those who are still children, not-yet Teens have become “Tweens” or “Tweeners,” so it is, I think, that those of us men, past 50 but not yet 75 or more, are living through Tweezerhood. We are holding onto what dignity and capacity of being middle-aged we can manage, but we increasingly carry it like I did my luggage for this trip: like baggage, lugging what Youth we have left around like a burden we can still bear, but now must work to bring along. One day, we’ll simply forget where we placed it, and will walk off without it. Then, one of two things will happen. We’ll either be frantic, and anxiously search about for what no longer can be found. Or, if we are blessed with self-acceptance, we’ll feel surprisingly relieved once we’ve realized that we have let it go. Then we may hope to find ourselves to be Geezers—and not merely old men, waiting for the ultimate relief of Death and the life to come.

So I am not my father! It is not yet time for me to be my father. But he has managed, since my mother’s death nearly two years ago now, to grasp his Geezerliness. And I have made this trip, I know now, to learn from him how to survive the Tweezer Years, and prepare myself for being a Geezer—if only I shall be as blessed as my Dad.

Timeless Travel

This is an experiment.

Apparently I have traveled to a land where the Net does not reach. I can receive emails, but I cannot send them out!

My situation has been explained to me, and I've nodded as if I understand it. But so much of this world is so different from my own, that I'm not really sure what is going on.

But you, dear reader, can help! IF you get this, and IF you respond that you have, I will know that in some fashion at least, I can manage two-way communication.

This is not exactly a cry for help! More like, a plea: How far from Home am I? Can you hear me? Is anybody listening! HA!

I'll be back...

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Remnants

A Cheerio on the back floor of my car remembers the child who sat in her very own seat, and ate in her very own way, and pointed at birds, and called them with a "buh" on her lips for the sheer pleasure of the sight and the sound.

A fan of feathers and fuzz on my front porch remember the bird who came to feed on the seed and became another creature's feed instead, as they met along that timeless cycle of Nature's silent turning.

The wheel of necessity may drive our natural forces but the small eddies of joy give Life meaning and light.