(Originally posted June 17, 2013)
My dad has been gone sixteen years now. Though I’ll admit that I don’t think of him every day, he has a way of sneaking back into my thoughts at the most unexpected times---like last night, when I laid in bed trying to remember the person he was in the October Years of his life. The more I thought about it the more I realized that at the time I had no idea of how many October realities he must have been dealing with---including having a son like me.
Now, at my stage of life, it seems those seldom visited thoughts take on more meaning, as though our own October experience has a way of putting things in perspective. Certainly I have a better understanding of how important and satisfying our own parenting experience has been, though in truth I didn’t always realize it at the time. I hope that’s how it seems to you when you look back on your own family times.
Like all of us, my dad was a man of many facets. The one that surfaced last night was his extraordinary patience---which at times I must have tried to the max. What I remember most in that regard was the late 1960s when, nearly a decade after joining the family business, I was caught up in what I can only describe a very early mid-life crisis. It was then, in a matter of five short years, that I dragged my young family through a whirlwind of sometimes disorienting change.
First there was graduate school. I didn’t really want to be there. But the Stanford Business School had invited me to be a part of their MBA program. That was an ego-boost for sure---one I couldn’t resist. A year later I was home, again working with Dad. That lasted a year---until I bought an Eastern Oregon ranch, so I could play cowboy. It took another year to learn that I wasn’t really a cowboy, and couldn’t afford to play one. So I returned to the window business---for a year. Then, in the fall of 1972, I moved the family to England, where I pursued my suddenly important need to write a novel.
Along the way Dad and I had established a routine of sorts. After each of those adventures I returned to the business, where he was anxiously awaiting my arrival---so that he and Mom could set out on their own long-dreamed-of retirement. But each time, before they had a chance to do that, I was off on another wild-goose chase. Looking back, it’s easy to see how patient he had been, and how much I owed him.
Given that history it’s probably not surprising that complicated father/son relationships occasionally show up in my stories. Nowhere is that interaction more central to the story than in Becoming. In the following excerpt Carl Postell has left his wife and career to follow his own writing obsession. Besides his stories, the ones that no publisher is interested in, the remaining constant in his life is his father. Though it is often disguised by loud arguments and blustery exchanges, their mutual affection 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---perhaps a sandwich, or some soup. My own cupboard was nearly bare and I was seriously sick of Top Ramen.
George Postell, my dad, was seated in his big cloth-covered recliner, the kind that tilted forward to help him stand up. Once on his feet he shuffled around his apartment with the help of a four legged cane. He was a small man, gray haired and stooped, 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.
I knew, of course, that 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 never 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 week. In the face of his long, lonely days, our few minutes of spirited dueling were some of the best fun he had.
After years of spirited 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. “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. I know that you’re just buying time, waiting for me to kick off so you can come into some serious money.” As always, the old guy 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.
My dad 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, had he not been a Postell---tied to the family and its farm.
I suppose 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. It had been that “Independent-Living” label that sold him. I remembered 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 of them sounded so descriptive of the person he believed himself to be. The other reeked of a weakness he would not accept for himself.
Perhaps on paper he did stretch the “Independent Living” definition a bit, but his was a very determined independence. Once his recliner had 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 that hung around his neck and the local Meals on Wheels program bringing him lunch, 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 housekeeper, caregiver, and best friend. Except for me she was also 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, or maybe 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 the Old Man had no such plans. He was more than willing to forego those last stops on the itinerary that others were planning for him. He expected to “kick off” right there in his own place, before any further move was necessary.
Stubborn, independent, blessed with a hint of bluster. Those words that describe George Postell so well also fit my dad. His last words to me were “I love you.” That was a bit surprising, since it was the first time I remember 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.