I glance up from the driver’s seat of the rental car. My niece is beside me, my sister in the back. Dad is standing at the window. His body is slightly caved and he is holding up one hand. His eyes are misty. We are all silent as we give him our final greeting and pull out of the parking lot. He hangs there a moment before going into his house and we glimpse right before we turn the corner. Alone in front of his townhouse.
We had come for his 101st birthday—five of his six children, all of his grandchildren, a girlfriend or two, and some visiting dogs. We were happy to see 101 come. After a big 100 blowout, dad had some physical set backs that were bad enough to start the conversations that started with “when,” rather than “what if.” But he’s back, slowly but surely and just last week, reduced his care worker to two days a week. I can handle it, he said.
I know he can. After beating me in countless board games, walking up and down the stairs to get a picture or a sweater, bossing people around who are using his kitchen, I do know he has it covered. He makes his own food, stuffs the washing machine with his weird poly trousers, takes walks, cane raised like a baton, rather than poking the ground; he moves furniture and brings yet more food to the table.
He looks young, he has a great memory, he knows who arrives when (don’t be late) and what pills to take when. His “pills” are vitamins and his life force is yogurt--No beta blockers, no heart meds; he runs on good food and homemade laban. His mind is crisp but his hearing is shot; his body is strong but he doesn’t see as well as he had. The best conversations with him are alone in a corner, next to him, holding his hand and talking in his less weak ear.
The rest of the time crowds admire him, swarm, creating waves splashing against his cerebral core. Occasionally he takes the moment to narrate a story about Lebanon, Brazil or traveling. He conjures his companions and family, he draws us to his village and on the water of the Amazon. Even if we heard the scorpion on the nose story once or twice or forty times before, we make room for another telling because this is his life.
Amanda, at work this morning, said “he’s 71 years older than me; I can’t imagine living 71 more years.” Many people say it’s a blessing but I wonder when he is standing in the parking lot as we pull out, and returns to his house, takes the tablecloth off the table and puts it in the washer, reorganizes the refrigerator after we moved stuff around; and starts another pot of yogurt.
It’s not 71 years for me, it’s 44, but I wonder too. If I can live with not only the silence of hearing loss but the silence of solitude, if I can have stories in my head I can’t write because my fingers don’t work anymore. If I can’t wait for the one person who supposed to take me grocery shopping but they are late and I am staring at my hands tracing my lifelines, wondering where the cutoff is.
My father is an adaptor. He left his homeland two times, he moved from home to home, sometimes against his will, he started and stopped businesses, he lost children, gained in-laws that later left the family. Sometimes he wished we were someone else, we worry him with our really not very nine-to-five lives. He misses his wife, his friend, who in her various frames around the house watches him sit in the big chair and say his prayers.
This week he will reminisce about his 101 birthday weekend and seeing his sons together, his grandchildren, the beautiful weather in Maryland and the abundance of food, noise and love. He will imagine telling these new stories to the people in his past. They are his contemporaries, speak his language, know what he knows. They are his constant companions although his nearby sons and almost near daughter do their best to make their visits count.
Days stretch to the next visit. The question lingers with me…44 more years. How did the first 57 go so quickly? I am mystified by time and mortality, memory and what those later years mean to a life. We search for meaning in the everyday, we live each day like it is our last, we don’t put off until tomorrow. And then tomorrow, when we are alone, there is a kind of silencing and a need to know what our days really mean, how they matter.
But maybe that’s what I need to do now; so later, in the silence and darkness, the memories are light, rich, and I tell my sisters, my husband, my contemporaries, and everyone whether they are there or not: that this denouement has a satisfying finale. And examining my own hands I am riding the lines like a slow train and that’s all I can do.
Causes Elmaz Abinader Supports