“Let’s see…paperwork for our Optimum installation in 2012…definitely need that. An empty box- very useful. A back scratcher….a jar of pennies! I’m rich! I’m f*@king rich!”
I was afraid I might get kicked out of Harmon for laughing so loudly. My mother can make anything funny- even clearing out my father’s old junk.
They moved into their house almost a year ago, but, in true My Dad fashion, he still has two boxes to unpack. She decided that today is the day of reckoning for those poor, neglected boxes.
“I’m just sick of seeing them. Every night I put the extra pillows from the bed on them. He never even looks at them. I just want the bedroom to look neater.”
All of those things are true, of course. But there’s also the ever-present elephant in the room that drives all of our seemingly mundane tasks these days.
Dad is a lot of things.
He’s just as funny as Mom. He’s a mechanical whiz. He’s got the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever met. He loves to save old junk.
He’s also sick.
The cancer has been in remission for a while, but the COPD is quietly progressing; the knees are starting to buckle; and the mind, from time to time, gets a bit frazzled.
It knocked me completely off my feet at first. All these diagnoses being rapid-fired at my ears within a few months of each other. All these words you never want to believe you’ll have to associate with someone you love- chemo, oxygen stats, brain scans…these are not words you put anywhere NEAR my father. He, for 30 years of my life, was the strongest man in the world. The one who could fix anything, do anything, be anything you needed him to be.
Then one day someone started saying all these words- these seemingly disjointed, unrealistic words- and I looked at him and saw someone else staring back at me.
I suddenly recognized the fatigue in his eyes, saw the pain in his movements, heard the strain of his breath.
Then it hit me (like a ton of bricks wrapped in steel rods).
The world’s strongest man was going to leave me one day.
And so, I’ve put myself on automatic. We all have. It’s our new normal. Dad is sick, but he’s still here. Dad is in pain, but he’s still working. He’s still walking. He’s still breathing without an oxygen tank. So he’s ok. He must be ok then.
We talk about things like a will and where Mom will live as casually as most people talk about the weather. He decided on his “arrangements” and then asked us to never bring it up again. So we don’t. Over the last few years I’ve watched him quietly part with the 1977 Thunderbird he had lovingly rebuilt a few times over its 400,000 mile-lifetime. I watched him give away the Kawasaki he built from the ground up- the one that morphed from blue to emerald green, the freshly-painted pieces dangling like little wind chimes from hangers in the garage. The one he used to race every Sunday, with me cheering him on from the Pit. Not to brag, but I was the ONLY 9 year-old Pit Crew Chief at Island Dragway.
He jokes, “Guys, I’m still HERE, I’m not going anywhere!” and we reply, “You’d better not! You’ll live till you’re 90, you’ll see!”
And maybe he’ll live for years and years- you never know. But so many parts of the “him” that I knew are already gone. I don’t get phone calls instructing me to “Be careful, Baby” because it’s drizzling- and light rain always brings up the oils in the road, you know. I don’t get random, ridiculous, hilarious voicemails. He doesn’t have the energy to jet down to the Jersey Shore, just the two of us, for some Skiball and pizza on a Friday night.
And he doesn’t remember Mr. Freddie.
Dad walked through the front door with Mr. Freddie on Valentine’s Day in 1987, and it was love at first sight. He came in a little plastic “wicker” basket (long-gone) and had the cutest little bumpy black nose (also long gone). I slept with him when I was sick; cried into him when I was sad; and chatted with him when I still believed that stuffed animals were magical.
Now I’m a 35-year old mother of two, so he no longer sleeps in my bed. He sleeps in my bedside table- obviously- and I pull him out and give him a good squeeze whenever life becomes too overwhelming. And, for the record, he is magical.
He has soothed Vince after nightmares. He has lulled Gracie to sleep when she was raging through her anti-nap phase. He has been a dad stand-in for calming my “adult life is hard” anxiety at 1am…and 2am…and 3am…and I’m fairly certain my dad appreciates that I hug the stuffed dog instead of showing up at his house. That would have been a LOT of middle-of-the-night visits over the years (because adult life is HARD).
But when I mentioned Mr. Freddie to him a few weeks ago, he just shrugged and said, “Sorry, Honey, I don’t remember him.”
Not gonna lie- I slept with Mr. Freddie squeezed in my arms so tightly that night that even as a stuffed animal he must have been having trouble breathing.
So this is part of the new normal. The old jokes are gone; the old songs that were once “our” songs, he may or may not remember them; and Mr. Freddie- well, he’s only magical to one of us now.
So, back to the old boxes. My mother was delighting me with one useless junk box item after another (anyone need a box of outdoor light roof clips? A bill from 2001?) when I heard, “The Mold Is Broken.”
Wait. I knew that. What was that???
“Before I was born, I asked God to help me find the perfect dad. I was having a hard time finding one by myself, and I knew I wanted one that was really special….”
It was the story I wrote for Father’s Day many, many years ago. The story about how God found me a dad that was perfect in every way, and then sent me to Earth, to his arms.
He had saved it.
It was in the box, under the back scratcher and the roof clips that had lost all their clipping power.
This of course elicited all the emotions that you really don’t want to feel while standing on a checkout line clutching shaving cream for your husband and a box of protein bars.
I had completely forgotten it existed, but he hadn’t.
I’m not going to say it made me feel better- there’s really not much “better” about coming to terms with the fact that your parents aren’t wizards who will somehow defy the odds of mortality. My apologies if I’m the first one telling you this, but trust me, you’d rather hear it from me than a Urologist holding a picture of the weird Avatar-like flower-looking thing growing in your dad’s bladder.
So, ok, it didn’t make me feel much better- but it did make me feel. You know, you put yourself on automatic and you forget sometimes that they’re still HERE. All my memories are just that- memories- but that doesn’t mean we can’t try like hell to make as many new ones as possible.
Maybe I’ll even write him another little book about how he broke the mold as a dad. How I know I’m the luckiest girl in the world because I was born to the guy that ran around the delivery room sobbing, hugging all of the nurses and doctors, and exclaiming, “I have a DAUGHTER!” How every second I’ve gotten to spend with him has taught me something that I’ll carry with me forever, and how I hope I have enough seconds left to learn a million more.
Or maybe I’ll write him a blog, go home, let myself feel all of the things this crappy, punch-in-the-gut reality wants me to feel, and then give Mr. Freddie a squeeze.