Monday, November 19, 2012

Reaching for Dad in the Thanksgiving sky

The turkey was my father’s bailiwick, his self-assigned, by-default duty Thanksgiving morning. I'm pretty certain he'd have rather conjured up one of what we called his "concoctions" -- an artistic jumble of whatever he found in the refrigerator. But our family's Thanksgiving dishes tended to be more basic than he'd care to tackle: green beans; mashed potatoes; dates stuffed with walnuts and rolled in sugar.

So post-sunrise found him contemplating the bird, still frozen in a sink full of water, its neck stinkily simmering on the stove. At some point during the next few hours, it thawed, or thawed enough, for Dad to cook it one of two ways: He either popped a lemon, lime and orange into its gross-the-kids-out cavity and baked it in a pre-heated oven. Or he'd put the stuffing-less turkey into a cold oven, crank up the temperature for a few minutes, then turn it off for hours.

Either way, it came out moist and delicious. Not that Dad had an opinion on the finished product. He wouldn't eat turkey, or chicken, or anything with feathers. The story goes that when he was a boy, growing up poor in San Antonio, he plucked so many feathers off his family's supper-bound chickens that he vowed once he grew up he would never eat another. Nor pluck one, for that matter. Nor, if he had his druthers, smell one.

But on Thanksgiving, he never questioned the turkey's presence -- or his role in its being there -- on the table. 

This year, for the first time in more than a half-century, we won't have Dad's turkey on our table. And though each other's presence will be palpable, all of us won't be together in the shoulder-touching way that's as ingrained into our lives as gravy stains on Nana's white tablecloth. 

Mom leaves for Maryland on Tuesday to spend Thanksgiving week with my brother Ben, his wife Meg, and her parents. My sister Jeanne will be hosting dinner at their lake house for her immediate family and her son-in-law's parents and sister. My little group will be at my sister Susan's house. 

We won't have turkey; last I heard, my brother-in-law is grilling fish. I'm fine with the no-turkey aspect of it; really I am. I prefer fish to turkey anyway. Jeanne's having turkey, but I'll wager none of our respective Thanksgiving menus will include the ubiquitous creamed onions or mashed turnips -- staples that few but Dad devoured. The couple who always baked Dad a much-ballyhooed mincemeat pie isn't coming this year.

Thanksgiving will mark one day short of four months since our precious father died. Last November, he wasn't in the best of health, and two years ago we all brought him Thanksgiving dinner at his latest rehab facility. Still, as dad to five of us and grandfather to nine, he was the patriarch, the one who made everyone feel welcome; the generous host who said the blessing until he got too choked up to continue, and then one of us would step in. 

The closer we get to Thursday, the more I am getting too choked up to continue. As Thanksgiving and Christmas approach, I can almost visualize, and all but feel the constants we've counted on for more five decades being tossed into the air from our collective cupped hands. 

Some will drift down like snowflakes,  landing in pretty much the same spot they always did. A few will catch a breeze and be scattered to the horizon of our memories. Others will return next year, falling like glitter onto shoulders.

And the rest? Sprinkled like stars which, if we stand on tiptoes, we can almost reach up and snatch from the sky.


Sunday, July 29, 2012

Seeking Dad in the sun

My father died while I was running. It was a Monday morning; eight hours earlier, we had all said our goodbyes. The hospice nurse told us she thought he’d make through the night, so when I woke up  and saw neither a text message nor heard a voicemail, I let out my breath a little, put on my shoes, and took off.

For the first couple of miles, I listened to NPR. A little before 6:30, suddenly any sound seemed superfluous, so I pulled out my earplugs and looped the cord around my fingers.
My eyes moved from the sidewalk to the sky, an endless blue canvas without even a sprinkling or a swath of white.

Without even thinking, I said out loud, “Where ARE you, Daddy? Are you in the sun?”

That’s where my friend Judy looked -- a year shy of a quarter-century ago -- for our mutual friend Gary when he died. On this recent Monday, it seemed the natural place to look, and the normal question to ask.

I finished my run around 7, went into the kitchen, cried just a little, and drank some water. I jumped when I heard the phone ring. It was my sister Susan.

“I called Daddy’s room when I woke up,” she told me. “The nurse said, ‘I can’t believe you’re calling right now. Your dad didn’t show any of the usual signs during the night that the end was close. But just now, he took a breath, and it was over. It was very peaceful.’ “

When I could talk again and after I’d wiped tears and sweat from my face, I realized I needed to ask her something.

“Hey Sister," I said. "What time was that?”

“About 6:28, I think,” she answered. “Just before 6:30.”

photo: Erich Schlegel

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Belonging here

At the end of last year's track season, my son Charlie's PR (personal record) for the triple jump was 39 feet, 1 1/2 inches. This is an event in which the silver grail is 40 feet. With each additional foot leaped, the chalice slowly turns to gold; each inch adds a gemstone.

Charlie didn't want to graduate without grasping the silver, and on a sunny day a few weeks ago, at a track meet on home field, he did. I am so grateful I was there, watching from the bleachers as he jumped that morning. After he landed and the sand around him had settled, his jumping coach stretched out the tape, and proclaimed "Forty feet, one inch!" The group of boys standing around clapped and cheered.

That was the first of four times this season Charlie reached it. In the best jump of his life -- 40 feet, 11 inches -- the grail was just beginning to turn to gold.

On his school's track team, two juniors excel -- a word that seems almost silly were you to watch them -- in the triple jump. Without question, they'd be going to the conference meet that ends the season. But the third slot was up for grabs. Charlie's major competition was another senior, one who would already be representing their school in the pole vault and long jump.

Charlie made up his mind he wasn't going to let that boy be the third triple-jumper, too. So Charlie worked harder than ever. He began eating the egg-white-turkey-bacon breakfast his coach eats every day. He spent more time chilling his muscles in ice baths, and incinerating them during sultry spring workouts.

His hard work paid off, and on Friday, his event of the conference championship took place. The day was clear, the sky blue, the breeze noticeable enough to keep the inevitable heat at bay. Before the triple jump began, his coach summoned his participants off the bleachers. He instructed them to sprint 100 feet at 70 percent effort, then at 80, then 90. The boys joined others warming up with high kicks, with exaggerated skipping, with vertical leaps.

Then the jumping began. One of Charlie's teammates immediately jumped more than 44 feet, a distance matched by the other one. Charlie jumped last, reaching 39 feet, 4.75 inches the first time and, oddly, the same on his second jump.

I stood by, feeling proud and supportive and nervous. His coach walked by and started talking; we walked together so I could listen.

"He's scared," he told me. "He's looking at his teammates jumping 44 and 45 feet, and he's wondering what he's doing here. But he needs to know he belongs here. He belongs here every bit as much as they do. He's worked hard, and he's good."

When I saw Charlie take his familiar deep breath before starting his last jump, I held mine. When he moved his arms across his body in his traditional preliminary move, I kept mine stiff and at my side. And then he began sprinting toward what would be his last triple jump of the meet, of the year, of the track chapter of his life.

He fouled, so his jump -- which he later told me he thought would be his best -- disqualified him. And I'm glad I was wearing sunglasses, because when he walked past me, I could hardly keep the sob in my throat. But I swallowed hard and I went back to the bleachers. He sat next to me, a foot or so away, and we didn't say anything. The coach came up and knelt in front of Charlie.

"You belong here," he said. "Don't think for a minute that you don't. You have worked so hard, and you are a great jumper. I have loved being your coach, and I'm going to miss you."

Charlie hugged him. "I'm going to miss you, too," he said.

Charlie stood up, gathered his gear, wandered off. I wanted to put my arms around him and tell him how proud I was of  him, but at that moment, it didn't feel like the right thing to do. So I let him go. All around, kids were talking and laughing, warming up and working hard, running and jumping and being right there in that very moment.

I'm not sure anyone else felt it, the lingering feeling of finality amid the excitement, the knowledge that, unless Charlie goes out for track in college (which I don't think he will) he'll probably never triple jump again.

But last time I saw him out there, his head was held high. And -- maybe it was the way the sun hit that green water bottle he always carries -- but I could swear he was raising a golden chalice to his lips.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Finding our way home

My mother periodically calls to tell me about something she has found: A photograph maybe, or perhaps a report card, or an entry from one of her dozens of diaries. The most recent was a letter she wrote to her mother (my Nana) in January, 1970.

In it, Mom apologizes for not writing the whole thing in one sitting (as if Nana would even have known, much less minded). But, she explains, as she was halfway through the letter, Ben (my brother, who had just turned 10) called to her excitedly:

"Mom! Chuckie's home!"

Chuckie was one of the dozen or so (admittedly, that's conservative; we weren't on the spay/neuter bandwagon that we are now) cats who made their way into our family. He had been missing for close to two months, and now was back. But this little creature was hardly the Chuckie we remembered. He was skin and bones. He could hardly walk. His coat, once black and shiny, was dusky and thin.

Ben told Mom the only reason he knew the strange and unfamiliar creature was Chuckie -- this is the part that made my sister Susan cry when Mom read the letter to her, and, when Mom read it to me, made me beg her to stop if the ending was sad -- from the red collar and tag he was still wearing.

Mom took Chuckie to the vet, who said he was in really bad shape. She surmised that on one cold night when he was roaming outside, he'd sought warmth under a car's toasty hood, one he could have climbed into from underneath. Miraculously, Chuckie wasn't sliced when the engine started, but he was stuck. When the car stopped, the vet continued, he probably found a way to the concrete below, and started walking.

"He must have walked a long way," the vet said, "because the little pads on his feet are almost worn through."

She told Mom that although Chuckie's outcome was questionable, she couldn't bring herself to euthanize him because he had fought so hard. I am about to cry just thinking about this. But I can't; I'm afraid were I to start, my tears would become those for every animal we ever lost, or those I never knew but whose deaths still tear off a piece of my heart.

Instead, on this glorious spring day, as I plant zinnias under the mailbox and tomatoes in wooden crates, I think about Chuckie's resolve, about his pluck, about his determination to do what we all -- realistically or  miraculously -- strive to accomplish. And so we persevere, no matter how small the odds, how many the miles, how long the journey or how short the jaunt: 

Like Chuckie, we just want to find our way home.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Trusting tenacity

A greyhound is missing. She is as white as she is skittish, as beautiful as she is scared. She's from Waco, a former stray who, after three months of fending for herself, was finally captured and driven to Dallas by a volunteer with the Greyhound Adoption League of Texas (GALT). She was given Tag No. 1897. A pink collar was placed around her neck, and a pink leash clipped onto the collar.

Her name is Tia, and had she only known the love and warmth and security that awaited her as it had the 1,896 dogs who came before, she probably wouldn't have bolted. But chances are pretty good that no two-legged creature had ever treated her with much kindness, so perhaps she felt she had no choice. So she waited till the vehicle that had transported her stopped at the veterinary hospital where she would be evaluated. The volunteer opened the door, and Tia jumped out. She ran across Preston Road, and she kept running.

Within hours, a couple of people spotted her flying across a field behind some multi million-dollar homes several miles away,  the pink leash like a kite tail behind her. That was Thursday. Some GALT volunteers went out that evening; Friday morning, a more organized search group fanned out across the area, but to no avail.

Saturday morning, about 10 volunteers, my son Charlie and I among them, combed the area where Tia was last seen. We wore jeans, and caps that covered our ears. I had on a yellow slicker and Charlie's sweatshirt was red, so we could see each other amid the gray drizzle. The brambles created a maze that a nimble dog might be able to maneuver, but probably not one pulling a leash. As we looked for Tia, we also kept our eyes open for pieces of pink amid the browns and tans and dots of green. All we saw were roots and trees and an occasional empty beer bottle.

Periodically, we'd cross paths with another volunteer. "Any word?" we asked, hoping beyond hope that maybe we had missed some bit of news. Charlie and I wandered, sometimes together, sometimes apart, for close to two hours before leaving to see my dad at the hospital.

The last few nights, I've woken up several times. I've heard rain on the roof, and hope that Tia has found shelter -- a pile of leaves maybe. Or, not as realistically, a warm bed in a house belonging to someone who doesn't know how to find the owner of this shy and courageous girl.

Sunday, another group met at 10. I didn't join them then, but after church, I went to the gym and then drove back to the neighborhood where Tia was last seen. I put on my hiking boots from the day before, the mud now dry and thickly caked on the sole. But there was some sort of police activity on the block that backs up to the field and forest, so I just drove around for a little while.

I heard this morning that the search goes on. A core team has been put into place, and a professional tracker hired. My fingers are crossed so hard they're losing circulation; my prayers for Tia's safe return, a mantra throughout my day.

I'm gratified and grateful that, though hope may be fleeting, it continues. That people will keep putting on their old jeans and tough shoes. That they'll keep plodding through brambles and mud for a white dog with a pink leash who is changing lives with her courage and her pluck, reminding us all that -- even when wilderness blocks the sun and we wonder what in the world we're doing -- we keep on going, keep on looking, keep on believing. Sometimes we don't really have a choice.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Stirring oatmeal

My father is in the hospital again. Thus, a stop to see him is added to my morning routine, as well as to my route home. I don't mind; not at all. Were roles reversed, my dad would probably sleep in my hospital room. When my son was born and spent 10 days in neonatal intensive care unit, my dad was there every night into the wee hours -- even after I had gone back to his and my mother's house, where I was staying while Charlie was hospitalized.

During Dad's previous hospital stays, I've brought him oatmeal from Starbucks and various other goodies. During this one, though, I've been hesitant because his fluid intake was so closely monitored during his last visit. So I've just been bringing him the newspaper in the morning and a recount of my day in the afternoon.

Since he was admitted on Tuesday, though, his kidneys haven't been the source of concern like they were last month. So on Saturday, I stopped by Starbucks and bought oatmeal. I'd slept an hour past my alarm and thus didn't run till later, which postponed my visit. By the time I arrived, Dad had eaten breakfast hours earlier. He was nonetheless very appreciative, even as he lay on his side while a physical therapist and an aide cleaned a nasty-looking wound on his leg. It isn't healing properly; thus his hospital stay.

I sat by his bed and rubbed his back while the cleaning -- quite an intricate and arduous process -- was going on. Every so often Dad would grimace, but he didn't want any pain medication and, really, was quite stoic. He asked how I was, and whether I'd heard from Charlie, who's at a volleyball tournament in Florida this weekend.

Meanwhile, the aide was trying to distract Dad from the pain by talking to him -- truth to tell, like he was a bit of an imbecile.Or, in reality, like the old person with the skinny legs and flyaway hair she saw on the bed.

"Oh, aren't you cute?" she said. "I bet people tell you that all time."

She alternated talking to him and talking about him: "Oh, look how pretty his eyes are," she said. And then, "I bet all the ladies loved you in your day!"

I made myself focus on my dad and not on her words. I realize she was just trying to make conversation. Everyone at the hospital is beyond nice and caring, and my dad never fails to say thank you. His spirits are remarkably high, even though he hasn't slept in his own bed or felt the sunshine on his face or watched the birds from his living-room window for almost a week. If the anticipated treatment continues, he probably won't for several more weeks.

Today, Mom and I went to the care facility where he may be headed next while he gets massive doses of antibiotics through an IV. She was wondering how he'd take the news. "At least I can tell him this will cure the infection," she said.

Yes, God willing, it will. But I think what has struck me, like the north wind on my face while I ran this morning, is this: Even if the treatment works, it can't make my dad who he was -- the one in charge; the rock; the one always willing to go for a drive or to see something new or to help someone; the omelet-maker and steak-griller extraordinaire.

He still recites poetry, which his mother did to him, and which we kids grew up hearing. I bet each one of us can recite -- if not the whole thing, then at least 75 percent of Robert Service's "The Cremation of Sam McGee. When I visited Friday night, something I said reminded him of a poem called "Little Boy Blue." We looked at each other and said it together.

Dad still remembers with amazing detail the day Kennedy was assassinated and his subsequent reporting on it days and years later. He still looks at my mother like she was the 23-year-old he married 57 years ago this Monday, and he never fails to tell us, "I love you," when we leave.

Last night, I brought Dad some yellow flowers I'd picked up at Central Market and a bagel -- a food that has tasted good to him even on days when nothing else did. He hadn't eaten the bagel when I got there today, but after his wound-cleaning treatment he said he'd like it. So I went to the cafeteria and bought two little containers of cream cheese -- strawberry and plain -- for a quarter each. I sliced the bagel in fourths and asked which kind of cream cheese he wanted.

"Strawberry," he said. I spread it on the bagel and handed it to him. He thanked me and said, "Mmmmm," as he bit into it. A few minutes later, his lunch arrived. He offered me a taste, as he had his tuna sandwich last night. I declined (though I had tried the sandwich). Instead, I asked if he minded if I ate the oatmeal I'd brought him.

"Oh, please do," he said.

So I swirled in the brown sugar that came with it, then emptied in the packet of chopped walnuts and almonds. It was delicious, and I'm sure Dad will agree when I bring him some on the way home from church tomorrow.