Word has reached me that my father’s health is failing. Perhaps that’s not an adequate description of the process at his age. He celebrated his ninety-fifth birthday last week. He has no particular condition or disease. At that age, more or less, things just seem to run out of patience with the earthly life.
He enjoyed his birthday very much, from the evidence of the pictures and the reports of those present. All four of his grandsons were there, with their wives and his only grandchild. My sister’s house was the scene. His winning smile was still in place, and his mind remains sharp. A more comprehensive report from my sister alerted me to the deterioration of his general condition. She hadn’t seen him for a few months, because he was still insisting on living alone in his house in New Mexico. She informed me that he had suffered alarming weight loss, some twenty pounds in three months, having no appetite and no remaining sense of taste or smell. She said that he seems to sleep most of the time now, and that last week he spent thirty hours in the hospital suffering from dehydration and “a little touch of” pneumonia. Most alarmingly to me, he was no longer spending time everyday reading. This is a man that only two years ago told me that, “the best part of getting so old is that I finally have time to read Flaubert.”
That bit about sleeping too much, I’ve seen that one in action. Long ago in Los Angeles my family and I lived in a rented house in West L.A. The rent barely covered the taxes on the property. The landlord had been a musician in film studio bands for decades. He was a nice fellow, a widower, in his mid-nineties. He wanted to use this property to help out young families. He stopped by sometimes to visit, and we all enjoyed the company. On rent day, we visited him in the house he lived in. One rent day, the last day that we saw him, we rang the bell and everything was strange. We could see him sitting in a chair in the living room, half sitting and half slumped over, but it took many minutes of ringing the bell to rouse him. He answered the door wearing a dress shirt, a tie, a suit jacket, a raincoat, underwear, and socks and shoes. He didn’t look right. One side of his face had seemingly sloughed off to the side and downwards. He remarked that we were days early and was surprised to find out that it was Wednesday. “Really? It isn’t Monday?” He’d been asleep for forty-eight hours. He told us that he’d had a dream in which his long dead wife came to visit him, telling him not to worry, they’d be together soon. He died within days. So yeah, when the super-old start to sleep too much, I get nervous.
We’ve had a checkered past, my dad and I. The adult relationship has always been pretty good, but he’s a funny guy. My childhood left rather a lot to be desired. I love him, though, and I’ve been genuinely happy that he has lived so long with a decent quality of life. He worked hard, and he was rewarded with more Golden Years than most people could imagine with never a money worry at all. But no one lives forever.
And now I’ll bore you with a poem about the old man that I wrote almost ten years ago:
My father, a complex man, still alive as of this writing.
Likes music, if you can call it that, opera mostly,
Gilbert and Sullivan, a favorite, not a good sign that.
The nicest thing he ever said to me:
“You know? I’ve noticed that the records you play are a lot better than the crap I hear on the radio.” Not a rock fan, generally. Jazz he found annoying.
A reader too, complex stuff, the classics.
Thomas Hardy, the whole boring lot of them.
Was known to read Thomas Mann in German back in the day, laboriously but with obvious interest, he might still, when nobody is looking.
Showing off? Probably, to the only significant other, himself.
Not exactly a fan of homosexuals, but tolerant in his old fashioned way.
“Who cares, it’s not a big deal. If Walt Whitman came through that door right now I’d run up and give him a hug.”
I had queer friends, he was unfailingly gracious, maybe he didn’t care at all,
At least he wasn’t willing to throw away all of the wondrous gifts of homo artists down through history, odds are that’s where it started, the tolerance, seemed to have grown into a general acceptance. I guess that’s a good thing.
He was a good provider, money anyway, brought home the bacon.
Handsome? I don’t know, he takes a good picture.
Unfailingly charming, with other people at least,
And sometimes charming at home too, he was, although the other effort must have left him somewhat debilitated, from all indications.
He didn’t need our validation, I see that now, got more than enough at work.
Not work, his “Career,” an engineer, loved burning coal, built power-plants, boilers big as city blocks, driving in Jersey he’d point them out, “see the black smoke over there? number two boiler, see the other two? clear as a bell. No one ever figured out why number two burns black.”
We’d love to have seen more of him, but he was a busy man after all.
I remember one time after he retired, I was at his house for some reason and the phone rang, the old kind with the wire, you had to stand right there to talk.
My mother, may her soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, rest in peace, amen, answered the phone, she was kind of excited,
My father took the call, it was an engineer in Finland, no less, they were designing a power generating facility that was to burn peat, not the best fuel, but cheap and they had a lot of it, he’d met my father somewhere or other, Spain? China? and he wanted to bounce some ideas off him, they talked for about forty minutes.
Do I sound proud? I am, I admit it, but not inordinately so.
We’d love to have seen more of him, but we had limited interest to him,
We’d overstayed our welcome, just a hysterical woman and two mere children, he had things to do, places to go, people to see. My mother-in-law was convinced that he had a second family to attend to. That I doubt, the family part, he’d had that up to here, the family part anyway.
A man of many talents, he can eat any chili you hand him like normal people eat cherries, and he likes them all too.
Never known to sing, never played an instrument, all sport was denied him by fate (except to watch others play).
The drafting table was his chess board, drawings that in their execution would weigh a quarter of a million tons, and burn clear, it was to be hoped.
He’s still alive, as of this writing. Lives in New Mexico now, a long story.
I still make the pilgrimage sometimes, went last month, ten time zones.
He lives alone, drives every day, cooks, reads, watches TV, he’s eighty-seven.
We both remember everything, but we never, ever compare notes about anything except newspaper humorists from the Twenties and Thirties, the Penn Relays, German verbs, poets, what we’re drinking these days, winners of track medals at the 1968 Olympics, the old Gillette Friday Night Fights, especially Gene Fulmer and Willie Pep, cars, anything to keep us smiling, like two old school chums, you’d hardly know we’re related except for the resemblance.