Monday, June 17, 2013

Dad -- he deserved better than I gave him

Yesterday was Father’s Day. My dad has been gone fifteen years. I’ll admit that I don’t think of him every day, but I did yesterday. I tried to remember the person he was in the October Years of his life, and realized that at the time I had no idea of what he was dealing with---the kind of things that arrive with October, including a son like me.

I must be at the stage when those special days take on more meaning, as though October has a way of putting things in perspective. I’m pretty sure I have a better understanding of how important and satisfying our own parenting experience has been, even if I didn’t always stop to realize that at the time. I hope that’s how it seems when you look back on those family times.

Like all of us, Dad was a man of many facets. The one I settled on last night was his patience---which I sometimes tried to the max. Nearly a decade after joining the family business I was caught up in what can only be described as an early mid-life crisis. In the course of five years I dragged my family off to graduate school, then to an Eastern Oregon ranch to play cowboy, and finally to live in England, where I pursued my suddenly important need to write a book. 

After each of those adventures I came back to the business, where Dad was anxiously awaiting my return---so that he could retire and do the things he wanted to do. But before he had a chance to do that I was off on another wild-goose chase. Truth be told, it doesn’t take Father’s Day to realize how much I owed him.

It’s probably not surprising that a complicated father/son interaction occasionally shows up in my writing. Nowhere is that relationship more central to the story than in Becoming. In the following except Carl Postell has left his wife and career to follow his own writing obsession. Besides his stories, the one remaining constant in his life is his father. Though their mutual affection is often disguised with blustery words, it is never far below the surface.

The Old Man’s healthcare aide answered the doorbell and ushered me inside. It was late morning and already warm, the way late-August mornings can be in the Willamette Valley. After cussing the Saturday morning traffic all the way across town I was ready for something to eat. I had skipped breakfast. Hopefully I was in time for lunch. My own cupboard was nearly bare and I was sick of Top Ramen. 
George Postell, my dad, was seated in his big cloth-covered recliner, the kind that raised to help him stand up. He was a small man, gray haired and stooped, who once on his feet shuffled around his apartment with the help of a four legged cane. Sitting there with a sweater draped over his shoulders he looked to be all of his eighty-six years. A hard life, especially one that includes serious disappointment, will do that.
As usual my visit would begin with our predictable pre-meal skirmish---loud arguments and passionate rebuttals---replowing old ground just enough to stir things up, but not enough to produce new answers. Our dialogue, whether about politics, religion or something from the newspaper, was in fact a well-disguised form of play, a highlight of Dad’s lonely week. In the face of his long days alone, our few minutes of spirited dueling were some of the best fun he had.
Of course, after years of playful head-butting neither of us had ever convinced the other he was wrong---not because of my logic or his, but because accepting the other’s arguments would have felt too much like giving in. 
“Glad to see you could spare the time,” Dad grumbled as I pulled a chair up beside his recliner. “Seems like it’s been a while since you’ve darkened my door. I suppose you’ve been too busy, eh? Locked away in that dingy cave of yours, writing your silly stories, forgetting all about your old man.” 
By then I was catching a hint of the bemused grin he reserved for his wayward son, his only offspring. “Damn it, boy. You could be doing so much better than that.”
“Why should you care? I’m doing exactly what I want, you know that. It’s my life. Besides, I don’t take a dime from you.”
“Don’t you kid me. You’re just buying time, waiting for me to kick off so you can come into some serious money.” As always, he wished that I was more respectful of his seven-figure brokerage account, funded by the sale of the Postell family farm more than a decade before. I knew there were times when my apparent disinterest in his money upset him. Though, of course, there were times when I was more interested than I let on.
The Old Man was a smart guy. His body was worn out, but his mind was still sharp. It was a rare thing when I could poke a hole in his logic, though I would never admit that in range of his hearing. More than once I had tried to imagine what he could have become if he had not been a Postell, tied to the family and its farm.
Most folks in his condition would have been in a nursing home, or at least an assisted-living place---like the one across the road from his independent living apartment. “Independent Living.” It had been that label that had sold him. I remember that morning, walking through the sprawling grounds of the Tanner East -Side Living Center, listening as he repeated the names to himself, comparing one to the other---first “Independent Living,” then “Assisted Living.” One sounded so descriptive of the person he believed himself to be. The other reeked of a weakness he would not accept for himself.
Perhaps he did stretch the “Independent Living” definition a bit. But once his chair pushed him to his feet he could shuffle around the apartment with his cane. It was slow going and though he never told me, I knew he had fallen a few times. Still, with the emergency call device hanging around his neck and the local Meals on Wheels program, he was able to take care of himself---microwaving his dinners, managing his own personal hygiene, and looking forward to Maria’s visits every Wednesday and Saturday. She was his caregiver, and except for me, his last reliable link to companionship and caring.
From the beginning I had assumed that one day Dad would move across the street to an assisted-living apartment, maybe even down the block to the nursing-home unit. That seemed to me the logical progression---the path I expected his future would take. For his part he had no such plans. He would “kick off” there, in his own place, before any further move was necessary. He was more than willing to forego those last stops on the itinerary that others were planning for him.

Stubborn, independent, with just a hint of bluster. Those words that describe George Padgett also fit my dad pretty well. His last words to me were “I love you.” It was also the first time I remembered hearing him say that---though I never once doubted it. It’s no accident that in Becoming Carl Postell’s father, and mine, play important roles from the first chapter to the last.

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