November 19th, 2009. Moraira, Spain. After Dad retired he moved to Spain with his long time partner Vi because the cost of living in London was too high. He had been in poor health for longer than I could remember and every time we saw one another we knew it could be for the last time. Eventually the inevitable call came and less than 48 hours later I was in Spain. My sister Lynn and brother-in-law Tim were already there when I arrived. There was going to be a small memorial service but no visitation. Dad wanted to be cremated, but Vi had held off on the cremation in case Lynn and I wanted to see Dad one last time. My initial inclination was to say no but after talking to Lynn about it I changed my mind. The next day we went to the funeral home and while the guests arrived Lynn and I went into a back room where there stood a coffin. The funeral director wheeled the coffin in front of us and asked if we were ready. Lynn and I held onto one another and signaled yes. The guy reached over the coffin and with a move that was reminiscent of a Master Chef lifting a cloche to reveal his creation he pulled back the lid. My first thought was, wow, Dad must have really let himself go towards the end. He had lost a lot of weight and a scraggely beard adorned his chin. Dad had grown a short lived moustache soon after Sgt. Pepper was released but that was the only facial hair I had ever seen on him. Death obviously changes a person’s appearance but I wasn’t going to be the first to admit I didn’t recognise my own dad. And besides, I was trying to be strong for Lynn. After what seemed like an eternity Lynn finally spoke. “Well then.” She said. “That’s not him is it.” Our attendant, who up to this point had been standing by in quiet reverence, suddenly looked up and peered into the coffin. His eyes got very wide. Realizing his mistake he slammed the lid shut and hustled the coffin out of sight.
My life is getting more surreal by the day. The coffee was placed on the counter before me. I looked across the coffee shop at the table where I had left my things and figured that I would have no problem making it that far. I clasped my hand firmly around the cup, took a deep breath and set off. But my arm started to give out as soon as I left the counter. I could see the coffee going down but there was nothing I could do to stop it. I looked around for somewhere to quickly put the cup down but all the tables had people at them. There was nothing but a bench where my failing arm brought the cup to an abrupt crash landing spilling half the contents on the bench and floor. At that moment my brain disconnected from my surroundings. I was there but I wasn’t. I wanted the ground to just open up and swallow me. I had made it maybe five steps. The people who work there know me and what’s going on but to everyone else I was just this guy who decided to pour a perfectly good cappuccino on the floor for no apparent reason.
August 6th 2008. Taboose Pass Trail, California. Eric had been trekking for decades and had packing down to a fine art. He had sent us a very precise list of what we should bring. Still, with all the food and gear for a week in the unpredictable climate of the High Sierra wilderness our packs weighed about 60lb. It wasn’t the fist time our son Manu and I had accompanied Eric. Anyone can drag their kids into the wilderness, the key is having them want to come back again. So I was feeling pretty good that he was back for more. However, 6 1/2 hours of hiking and 6,000 feet of elevation gain later I was the one swearing I’d never do this again. It was the trail that just wouldn’t end. And that was just the beginning, we climbed two 14,000 ft peaks that trip. One of the things about Manu though, no matter how far ahead he got on the trail he never crossed a threshold without us. He would always wait for me to catch up so we could cross a pass or exit a trailhead together.When we were kids bedtime was around 7:30-8:00 or so. This was way too early to be tired but those were the rules. I spent a lot of time lying awake listening to the sounds of grown-ups downstairs talking, drinking, laughing, watching the programs that came on the TV after nine o’clock. The mysterious world that you were not part of. I would often sit at the top of the stairs wanting to go down, wondering how long it would be before I understood the jokes they were laughing at. Occasionally I summoned the courage to venture down. Testing my boundries one stair at a time to see what would happen but nearly always chickened out and retreated back to my bedroom. I recall one night that I made it all the way down and gingerly pushed the living room door open. Dad, a sixty cigarette-a-day chain smoker, sat in his chair watching TV enshrouded in an ever present halo of thick smoke with several empty beer bottles by his side. When he saw me I expected to be immediately sent back to bed but to my surprise he silently motioned me to come over and sit in his lap. Basking in the aura of cigarette and alcohol fumes that was Dad, together we watched TV. “Callan” a program about a ruthless secret service agent. Grown-up TV. My first glimpse into the mysterious downstairs world that existed after dark.Until I get the “eye-gaze” tracking computer set up, my main form of communication is texting. When people are over Rae announces “everyone get your phones out.” Then we set up a group text with everyone in the room. Even when I had two fully functional hands texting was not my forte. Now that I have just the one finger I communicate at the speed of Dori (from Finding Nemo) trying to communicate with the whale. By the time I have got my thoughts out there, the conversation has moved on three subjects. If I have something that just can’t wait I wave my hand until Rae notices, then she will halt the conversation and with her best teacher voice announce “Yes Ray. Do you have something you would like to share?” Manu was down from Chicago over the weekend and introduced me to the SwiftKey keyboard. Instead of poking the keyboard with a weak crooked finger and hoping it lands close enough to the right key for auto correct to do its thing I can now slide my finger back and fourth in a “z” formation across the screen and words magically appear. Apart from making typing quicker the sliding motion is almost meditative. And now I’m only two subjects behind in the conversation instead of three.
The last visit I had with Dad was probably the best visit we ever had. We rarely saw eye to eye. There was plenty of blame to go around on both sides for this. He could have been more of a dad, I could have been more of a son. Off hand I can think of maybe two tender moments we shared as I was growing up. Maybe three depending on how far you wanted to stretch the definition of tender. It was a different time. A time when there were fairly rigid constraints on how men could express emotions. But regardless of the reasoning for this seeming inability to openly express love it doesn’t stop us eternally yearning for even the slightest hint of approval. One thing we did share was our love for music. So on this visit I decided I would take him an iPod. He loved jazz. He didn’t own a computer so I loaded the iPod with all the music I recall hearing coming from downstairs when I was a kid. I was worried about his ability to operate it and read the screen given his poor eye sight but he mastered it pretty quick. I have a fond recollection of him holding the iPod about two inches from his face selecting music. About two weeks after I got home I got an excited call from him. “Do you realize Monty Sunshine is on the iPod? And Chris Barber Live At The Royal Albert Hall? I haven’t heard that in forty years.” I said “Yes dad I know. I put it there.” I guess he thought you just bought a Jazz iPod or Rock iPod and it came fully preloaded with that genre of music. As he processed this I could almost hear gears turning on the other end of the phone. “So….. I could send you back the iPod with all my CDs and you could add them too?” “Yup.” And this iTunes thingy you speak of, it has everything?” “Not quite but close.” A month or so later his entire CD collection arrived in a box with the iPod.I could easily become a hermit. I have never been prone to taking naps but sometimes the energy of people is more than I can handle and I have to excuse myself under the pretext of needing to lie down. Sometimes I sleep and sometimes I lie awake listening to the sounds of talking, joking and laughter downstairs. The familiar voices of family and friends, the comforting melody of the different vocal tones and intonations that come with having three generations interacting in the same room. The smell of cooking instead of the smell of cigarettes wafting upstairs. A place where people come together. I could sit at the top of the stairs listening to that for a long time.
Before we become parents we all have fairly firm ideas about the type of parents we are going to be. These ideas stand firm until we actually become parents. Then it all goes out the window. I essentially modeled my parenting on trying not to be like my dad. He saw himself as the provider and while we may have lived under the same roof, nurturing was not in his job description. He was a hedonist and left a trail of destruction wherever he went. It was difficult to be upset at the coffin mix-up because in the back of my mind I could hear him chuckling. Having the last laugh. Neither age nor infirmity (nor death apparently) dimmed his spark. But the problem with the concept of actively trying not to be like someone is that while you may have the best of intentions, you never truly escape that person’s shadow. You have to let go of everything to be the parent you’re going to be. Your kids are unique individuals who have never been before and will never be again. You almost have to let them teach you how to be a parent rather than the other way around.
I am the consummate competitor. Everything from riding a bike to making a cup of tea has to be done to the absolute best of my ability. It isn’t a button I switch on or off, it’s the only mode I know how to operate in. I have always been the first to make it to the pass or trailhead. I am the one who waits. Not the other way around. The difficulty I had keeping up with Manu that trip was a harsh mental adjustment. On the flight home from our hiking adventure in California a movie started playing on the seat back video screen. I plugged in my earphones but my headset jack wasnt working. Seeing this, Manu just took off one of his earbuds and handed it to me so that I could listen. My initial inclination was to decline his offer. Primarily because I wouldn’t have thought of doing that for him but he persisted. We spent the next hour and a half leaning into one another, one earbud a piece, watching “Shrek The Third” in difficult to hear mono. To him it may have just been an offhand gesture he hasn’t thought of since. To me it was an unexpected moment of closeness, the likes of which I hadn’t felt since sitting in my own dad’s lap all those years ago. At that moment I had an epiphany of sorts. One that is helping me through life to this day. The point wasn’t that the movie was difficult to hear. As brutally hard as some of that trip was physically, the difficulty was not the point. As hard as life is becoming, and as much as I’m sure we’re going to run out of ways to adapt at any moment, the difficulty of life is not the point. The point is that we’re sharing it.
Peace, love and midwives