I got back last week from a week long trip out to see Dad to celebrate his birthday as well as an early Father's Day. Although at 96, his health and his heart are failing, he seemed to be holding it together mentally at least, eating well and doing all he could do, as a man, to defend the remote from those that would wish to watch “chick flicks” between beating me at multiple games of Cribbage. He does have a nurse's aid in two shifts, 8 hours a day to help with his meds and bathing and a catheter that's an outcome of his cancer treatment along with aging. They also keep the house clean and prepare his meals, including a hot supper each day, laughing I'm sure at some of the "as seen on TV", things Dad has added to his "bachelor kitchen" since my Step Mom passed.
Dreams. They come to us unbidden, some frightful, some bringing a joy that is only a glimpse of what is to become. Some are such that as soon as they touch us, we wish to pull out of them quickly. Such dreams are better faced awake, armed with reason and courage, then in the leaden movements of the night, where things will pull you down into the depths of fear and pain, while your legs struggle to move, caught in a quicksand of time and tide.
But for every occasional nightmare over those years (usually after late night Pepperoni pizza) there were those dreams that would wake us up with a smile on our face; a look, a face, a touch, unknown to us in the day, but yearning for us in the night.Those were such thoughts that follow us into our days as the sun warmed our face.
In school, I was an attentive student, not prone to wandering thoughts, though I did get sent to the Principals office for getting caught reading a car magazine behind my history book in 9th grade. (Look, I already knew about Lewis and Clark, I wanted to know how to put headers on my car, as soon as I could buy one).
There were also few expectations in a small mill town other than you try and finish high school, only a few going to the local two year college. From high school, most get a job in the timber plant, get married young and work hard. The green chain of a lumber mill might be a place to earn $20 bucks an hour, big bucks at 18, but for me it was a place where dreams would go quietly to die. Dad understood and gave permission for me to opt out of most of my high school courses and start my studies at our local college at age 14.
Three years later, with Dad's blessing, I left for the big city, disillusioned by the indifference to the song of a destiny in a factory town displayed by my classmates, afraid of a fate that herded its own through a shortcut from school to an oft early grave, with sometimes dangerous and back breaking work. Higher education was my only way out, and as much as I loved my family and some of my friends, I had to go. I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it, there was no money for college, with Mom's long battle with cancer, but I knew that with the hard work ethic of those I grew up with, I could put myself through, as both my parents did.
So I watched those familiar mountains grow distant, my dreams about the only thing I had to consume in that first year on my own, which in the Chinese Calendar would have been the “Year of the Ramen noodle” as I sometimes worked up to 3 part time jobs to pay for tuition and a room to rent in a big house near campus.
But I still came back, if only for Dad. For his dreams, tattered as Fall leaves that waved like a brace of flags, were still real to him. He was, and is, happy there, children close in spirit if not in miles, sharing in the memories of much happier times, stories of those he loved with great intensity.
I understand such things, for like my Dad, I am a closet romantic. I once had a talk with a friend about what would be the ideal relationship for me, not the pride of ownership with the ensuing need for control, but something else - “I want someone for which I’m necessary, not simply loved, but necessary", I said, trying to explain it as best I could. He said such things are the 'stuff of romantic fiction' but he did so kindly, not understanding.
Dad understood, and over the years sure we'd have talks into the unquiet evenings while I was there about my life and my heart, not to be nosy, or to bring up the pain of the distant past that he knows was still there, but to simply make sure I would be OK when he was gone. He knew how fortunate he was to love greatly, not once, but twice, two marriage, each lasting decades, the last a great one that pulls at his heart daily though in no way diminishing his first love.
When I brought Partner in Grime home, one of only two men I'd ever brought home to meet my family in the last 25 years, Dad was relieved to see I was finally happy, and my Big Brother took to Partner like he was already family, the two of them discussing engineering in the kitchen well into the wee hours, as even then, my brother knew his days were drawing to a close. They both loved him and were happy that I was not just in love, but that I was "safe", something I'd not been with a spouse twenty years ago who used his fists as exclamation points.
Yet for all his romantic soul, Dad’s a practical man, raised in the depression, career military, living with Norwegians for which the utterance of profound despair may only be “ya, the coffee is getting cold then” and possessing those fine set of brakes which can put a halt to any runaway emotion lest you lose control. And like my closest friends he is very much a "man's man" on the outside. He loves his sports and once glued to the TV, there’s not much conversation. I was cooking a large meal for him for dinner one night, and half way through he came out in the kitchen and hugged me and said “I love you”. I looked at him, laughed and said “it’s half time isn’t it”. And he just laughed.
But my Dad and I are just alike, even as, both redheads, we occasionally gently and humorously spar, out of stubbornness and concern for one another, as anything. Which is why I travel the long miles to see him as often as I do, spending time with him rather than going on trips with friends,or vacations with my husband, tending to Dad's large house, cooking him his favorite meals which will go into the freezer for later, getting his beloved garden in order, running his errands.
There’s not a lot for me to do there when Dad is sleeping, which is about 14 hours a day, the nearest town fairly small, the unemployment in that whole part of the state staggering. The town is coated with the smell of the pulp mills taking the form of grey houses and grey smoke and tired men and women who move slowly and seemingly without thought or dreams in and out of the vast machinery that keeps this little town alive. Their eyes dimmed by many hard days under rain and cloud, yet remaining here, for what tethers them to this land is as profound to them as what drove me away.
So, for Dad, for his dream, I would stay, if only for that week. For this is what he needs now, for though his town is not the place he settled, so many moving away, it is is a memory of post WWII life, setting up a home here with his first wife, my Mom, after years of separation while he was at War. It was a town full of music and dreams and tall hills covered with ceaseless timber, the rain, not a grey blanket but a sound, a rising and swelling with the gusts of emotion, and passion that was worth waiting for. That place is still alive for him, in an old covered bridge, in an old house near the water, in dreams of steelhead trout that never grow old, never tire.
After my visit there, I go home to dreams rendered real, eyes kind and a face smiling, the countenance of St. John the Divine, made flesh. Someone to make me laugh, someone who would mourn my passing. My nights on the road might be lonely, yet in the wandering paths of my dreams both asleep and awake will come lips on my shoulder, fingers that hold my own, gently as if in sleep, silent shadows of faithfulness that communicate more profoundly than any words I could write here. And like my Dad knows, I am aware of how very fortunate I am, to have these remnants of family, strong and abiding still.
He and I both know this may well be the last Father's Day I get to say these words to him, but I know that when he does have to leave us, there will be more than shadows remaining. There will be laughter and warmth reflected in invisible glass, seen from a distance by loving hearts that will always remember.
Happy Father's Day Dad. I Love You.