I took a sip of tea this morning and it reminded me of tea with my Nana. I don’t know what it was about this tea. I have had it before. Today it tasted like her house. Which again is interesting because most of my memories of Nana’s house are wrapped up in Tang, a sweet drink I only ever in my lifetime drank there. Nana was of British heritage though and tea was definitely a part of her life. She had the only china sets I ever saw as a child. Lined up in the cupboard, each cup on it’s saucer. She also had sugar cubes with silver pinchers to remove them from their round ceramic bowl. The sugar cubes stood next to the milk saucer, which didn’t always have chilled milk in it. This is the sweetness of memory, how it finds you in a cup of tea, and takes you to a time and person no longer in the physical world.
Six years ago today I picked my dad up for church. My family was joining us for the first time since our move. They were coming later. Dad and I had to ready ourselves for choir. He shared about his weekend, certain things were taking a turn for the better. He had golfed 18 holes. He had eaten a huge steak dinner with two of his brothers. These things were not the norm for him. It is true I had not seen his spirits this high since before the diagnosis.
As the church service began we were encouraged to hug our neighbors. My dad gave me one of his truly big and delicious hugs. He hugged will all of his body, in close nice and tight. Someone looking on said “wow, you two must know each other.” I am so glad we hugged that tight, so exuberantly that someone noticed. My boys raced to the stage and Gramps lifted them in to hugs in a way he had not been able to for sometime. It’s so very important that we all got these hugs.
Because it was all a new place and system the boys needed me to join them in the Sunday school so I left the stage and my dad. My oldest son sat near the window looking out over the graveyard he turned to me and asked “Mom is that were we are going to bury Gramps when he dies?”
I had no words in that moment. We had never discussed death and Gramps before. Heck even us adults weren’t brave enough to be discussing after life plans. I truly had no idea. And it all seemed so far away after a weekend of golf, steak and giant bear hugs.
On the car ride home something started to change. The color had drained from his face. “I’m feeling really off,” he shared. I left him with mom and carried on to up the road. His face and thoughts of his health followed me throughout the day. I checked in later and he was hard to see there on the couch, shrinking in to it’s folds, nearly matching it’s color. The liveliness of the morning drained right out of him.
I got the report of his attempts at eating met with a misplaced appetite. Full on fear perhaps, he had no room for a meal. My day moved forward but my mind stayed with him. I shared a meal with a friend to celebrate her birthday. I was present at all. Waiting for the phone, for updates, hoping to hear his spirits pick back up again to the place they were that morning.
I was sitting in the door way of my new home, lap top perched on my knees, soaking up the sun when I saw him walk by. He didn’t notice me. His pace brisk and determined. I remember I had on my favorite red sweat pants. I was close to talking myself out of following him. I had a mountain of work to do. It’s why the kids were with mom. Something nudged me to put down the lap top and catch up to him.
It took me a while to figure out if he was happy to have me on his walk. It’s true that the first ten minutes of our walk was in silence., aside from the short observations of how beautiful our surroundings were. It was enough to be there with him seeing all of this.
I’m not sure who opened the conversation but we both fell quite easily in to it. We were in a shared space in our adult lives. Where we had gone from spending only non working hours with our spouses to spend 24 hours a day 7 days a week with them. He and I were bumping in to some of the same hiccups that are bound to happen in this sort of transition. We shared, honestly and openly. It was the first time I remember being an adult with him.
I was always daddy’s little girl. I loved the role in fact. It was how we interacted a lot of time. Me adoring him, him adoring me along with the inevitable strong willed confrontations that come out of that sort of adoration. This was a new territory. This was a place where we were both married adults sharing our struggles, supporting each other, laughing and really lifting up each others burdens if only for the moments of the conversation.
It was the last loop through the estuary, along the ocean road and back home again that the two of us would take alone together. And I am eternally grateful for noticing how beautiful it was to be a trusted adult confidant to him then. To know he saw me that way. But mostly, I am glad I left my laptop, my pile of work on the doorstep and embraced this fleeting moment. I can recall the details oh so vividly each time I walk that loop and it’s what fills in the spaces of missing him, even if it’s just for the briefest of moments.
I asked my oldest son “what are your memories of the month we had living up the road from Gramps?” He was only 5 when Gramps died so I was curious as to what his mind held on to.
“I remember he could eat in the living room and I could not.”
Mom had a rule of no food in the living room. It stuck out because it was different then our eat where you are way of being just up the road. My son has always been aware when things were slanted away from his favor. Until he mentioned this I had completely forgotten his frustration with this little fact.
We never talked to much about what was happening with Gramps. He knew he had cancer. He was sick in a big way. He had a friend, just a year older then him, who was also battling cancer in big and scary way. This disease was not new to our family. I am certain he thought the cancer was the reason Gramps could eat in the living room.
I explained it was probably cause Gramps was older and maybe thought to have better control over his messes. And then I told him hilarious stories of the number of glasses of red wine that careful Gramps had decorated the living room carpets with. His talking hands were always a danger to his wobbly wine glass.
While dad held on to what he could, the small snippets of normal, I slowly leaned that coming home for me was an awkward place where who I was no longer fit with the person who had grown up there. It is normal to run it to people who have known you for a life time when you move back to your home town. Living just four doors up the road, two of the houses in between my parents home and mine housed neighbors I had know since 1980. It truly was a reflection of all the parts of me that had changed and those strands remained the same.
My dad was my reflection of how you could be a different person in the same place. Where I ached to shake off the small town teenager who seemed to follow me in to this new chapter, he kicked to the curb beliefs that no longer served him. It had been going on for some years. Him pulling out core beliefs, giving them a long hard look and choosing to change beliefs he had held so tightly to. My favorite was when he marched in to his new church to announce he was not in favor of same sex marriage only to have his argument pulled out from underneath him. And then to call me on the verge of tears and announce “It’s about love. How could I have ever been against anything that was about love?”
He was a proud and certain man. If he could have the humility to admit his own flawed thinking and abruptly change directions surely I could put to rest the insecurities and uncertainties that circle the edges of my mind. I could decide in that very moment that to be home, was about the love and how could I ever be against anything that was about love.
We had decided that in exchange for my mom caring for the boys once a week in her daycare, I would make mom and dad a meal for that night. It was good for me as I was home working and it was easy to double up on what I would be making anyways. I don’t remember what the main course was on this particular evening. But I do remember I had made biscuits to accompany it.
My family was complaining about the biscuits and how they were quiet yucky not worth eating at all.
I had to dash down to mom and dad’s for a moment. I walked in the door and dad was on his seat at the end of the couch eating his meal. In fact he was eating one of the biscuits. I said to him “my family says those are disgusting.” He looked up and said “well they taste just fine to me.”
I returned home and announced to my family “well Gramps says the biscuits are just fine.”
(it’s worth mentioning that I could not make my own opinion as I do not eat gluten and these biscuits were full of it.)
As I started to clean the kitchen my husband asked “what kind of biscuits where those” and I said “baking powder biscuits”, almost at the very moment that I put the baking SODA away in the cupboard. That’s when it all fell in to place for me. The two are easy to mix up in the rush of preparing a meal with small people at your feet.
There is something so rare and fabulous about the sort of love that leads a person to eat a baking soda biscuits with a smile and a compliment. And it’s this sort of loving that a girl can end up missing for the rest of her living days while simultaneously bowing down in gratitude for the chance to experience it.
“Your mother won’t let me drive can you take me up to the job fair.”
It must have been a rough night because he both looked and sounded rather high on morphine. I am not sure which was more frustrating to him the fact that he was reduced to such a strong dose of medication or that the side effects left him incapable of fully functioning.
Of course we would give him a ride. The job fair was right next to the library and the boys and I could easily entertain ourselves in the shelves of books while dad went looking. He was searching for something to do. I am not sure if it was a new career he hoped for or a volunteer gig to fill his mind on the days the monotony of being still was too overwhelming. He had worked his whole live and being idle was not settling well.
It was a quick trip through, apparently the presentation was not anything like what he was anticipating. He ran in to an acquaintance who said to him “wow you are are so pale, you could use some blush or maybe a little lipstick.” I suspect she was trying to beat dad to the punch. He was always dolling out the one liners, the sarcasm and yes the inappropriate jokes, especially to the ladies. At any other time in his life it would have been appropriate. But today it meant his disease was becoming more obvious.
Outside of his family and close knit friends dad did not announce that the cancer came back. He had beaten it 4 years ago and that is what most people in his wider circle knew. He held on to this desperately wanting it to be his story again 4 years in the future. So much so that when I let his church community know he had passed they assumed it was a heart attack.
This boggled my mind because he was disappearing. Weight falling off of him faster then even the most amazing of diets could claim. The color draining from his skin with each day. He was clearly, in my eyes a man who was ill. But I learned people see what they want to see. They ask what is polite to ask. And hold tightly to the patterns of interaction that keep their worlds running as evenly as it possible. This is how my dad could pass week after week in to his church community and have no one notice his cancer.
But that day, those words stung him. I could see it in his eyes. Clarity returning as the drugs left his system. It made me aware that communication, is as much about noticing the person in front of me as it is about the words I choose. Taking that extra second to look in to someone’s eyes may save me casually tossing about the sorts of words that could deflate their spirit. And to also stand, still holding attention to the person in front of me, to make sure my words land softly. I may never know all the burdens a person I bump in to carries along in their day but I can be aware enough not to add on to them.
He was always awkward when he visited my homes. Only ever having a sleep over twice. Once for his final Christmas and the other stay for his radiation. He preferred to show up for a gathering, get out and about and then return to his home. Even if this meant there was more driving then there was visiting. He liked to pace when things got still. It was his heritage. I am certain the last time my Grandmother visited dad’s home she wore a path in the carpet from the door to the kitchen and back again.
Now that we lived up the road, we were more accessible. It didn’t however make his visits any more comfortable. He would stop in from time to time, to check in, to say hi, or simply to get a moment out of his own house. He didn’t have work to occupy himself, so his wandering, his pacing just got more. I image it is also so true that he moved to try and get away from his own thoughts. He in fact was in that body, I imagine more aware then the rest of us how quickly it was falling apart.
We were always happy to see him. Would stop what we were doing and engage. One day, I had just made muffins. Even though he didn’t have much in the way of appetite he sat and shared one with us.
While his other senses dulled, the smile and enthusiasm he had for his grandsons stayed exactly the same as it was from the day they were born. These drop ins were at his leisure, his time line so he could walk away when it was too much to have the energy needed to ooze adoration all over a fast moving 3 and 5 year old. This was the sort of gift I could never have asked for or imagined up before it starting pouring in to my life. The awkward falling, replaced by cherished moments.
Shortly after moving back home I borrowed my dad’s car to return and finish the final cleaning of our old place. Dad’s car wasn’t getting much use since he had stopped working and lending it to me gave my family the freedom to get out and about while I was away. It’s worth knowing for the purpose of this story that the only spare key for mom’s car was on dad’s key ring.
The morning after I returned home I got a flustered call from my dad asking my to return his keys, not the car, the keys. Mom’s keys had gone missing. “Sure thing dad!” But the keys were no where to be found. I searched high and low in a very panicked way, like a child who had disappointed her father.
My dad was not a patient man with things like this. In fact I would have to say it was quite the opposite. We now had 3 cars between our families but only 1 of them had keys that could be located. Two homes were being torn apart from top to bottom. One man was cursing while two woman scurried frantically praying to locate the missing keys. Even before a thorough examine could be completed dad had called the dealership to have another key made for mom’s car and was picking that up before heading to the post office to organize a retrieval of the mail key. All with the speed and fierceness of a tornado.
That night, at bedtime I found my dad’s keys. Nestled in a pile of toys next to my 5 year old’s bed. I almost flew in to the same sort of frantic rage that had consumed my father’s morning but instead I asked him “did you take Gramp’s keys?”
“But what are these?”
“Those are the keys I was playing with.”
“But why didn’t you give them to me when I was looking for Gramp’s keys?”
“Cause I didn’t know those were Gramp’s keys.”
It was perfect in it’s logic. And thankfully I could laugh the crazy of the day away and present to my dad the next morning his returned keys with a story. To this day I am not certain he fully believed his grandson. But I did.
My dad so often carried the weight of the world on his shoulders alone. Making it easy to lift from peaceful to angry at what may have appeared to be the tiniest of things. This day the lost keys gave him something familiar to place his attention upon. He could fix this while stamping his feet and cursing at those around him and for a few short hours feel parts of who he was before he became the man with inoperable cancer. So though we were battered a small bit by the storm of his frustration he found a safe harbor. He had something to do other then be sick.
I had been singing in a choir for almost two years when I moved back home, a church choir. These are two things I never would have predicted being a true about me. Growing up church was not a part of my experience. No one in the house went to church and religion was not something we spent any measurable amount of time believing in. Yet my dad held and a gifted to me a deep sense of spirituality. It was this foundation that afforded my the open mind to visit a progressive united church and fall in to the community and questioning provided.
I confided once in my friend and fellow church goer that I had a desire to sing in the choir. I had no training, experience or back ground in such things. I simply longed to sing. And so she held me to my words and picked me up for choir practice.
Growing up with my dad, I heard him belt out many a tune. Not just singing, the man would own the tune and sing it with vibrato, any chance he got, the national anthem, Christmas carols, a good tune on the radio. When I knew I was moving back home I put out the challenge to him, “I’ll join the Knox United choir if you do.” He accepted and I wept my way through Wednesday night practices and Sunday sermons with my dad just a few seats away. Somehow the sacred space, the words, his courage would all gather in my tear ducts every time, fueled by a knowing of how rare and fleeting this would be.
After the first rehearsal, as I drove us both home, he said “I think I’ve been a closet singer my whole life.” It was muttered almost fully under his breath but I caught it and just as quietly agreed. Sitting both of us eyes forward in the car made it easier for this new level of sharing. This place where reflections of a life running out could fall without their full intensity.
It was an inspiration to me, that even now, sicker then he had ever known, he was still stepping up to the challenge of doing something brand new and wildly outside of his comfort zone. Each year as I smile at this memory I am reminded not to hide any of my passions, or hopes or dreams inside a closet but instead to sing them out loud and now even when faced with huge obstacles.