Within Close Range: Dad

I think the doctor’s last count was seven different incidents – each stroke leaving in its wake a little less Dad. One of the areas of the brain that had been most severely affected was motivation, as was his ability to read and write. 

After the last big one, his peripheral vision was also shot, which meant no more driving. 

So Dad sat. 

And eventually he lost sight of everything that made him tick, gave him purpose, he was good at.

I watched the frustration in his once playful eyes when things weren’t clicking in his quick and clever mind; and quietly mourned the lengthening shadow that would eventually smother the once strong light, turning his weaknesses upon himself and others; until his needs pummeled Mom and his words became brutal. 

By the time we placed Dad in assisted living, the shadow was long and the void, wide. The once powerful figure could no longer focus, spent the days crying and the nights wandering, and missed the toilet.

Conversations were now repetitive communications, driven by a series of questions he’d ask again and again. Always about family, living and dead. Impossible to steer him away from this endless loop because it was all Dad had left to hold on to. 

It was the only way he could be more than a figure in the room, struggling for thoughts, for words, for loved ones.

For himself.

His body remained strong for quite long, but that didn’t surprise anyone. Dad had always been a natural athlete with a small, fleet build and a bold swagger. But eventually his muscles and mind began to atrophy after all those years of sitting.

Doing hours and hours of nothing. 

And after a while, his sinewy legs (which had hiked a thousand miles of fairways) twisted weakly beneath him; while cherished faces and times and places steadily stepped into the darkness.

Rare became the instants, during my all-too-brief, long-distance visits, when I saw that certain twinkle that came to his eyes when he was pleased, or about to be funny… or silly, or sweet.  

Dad’s wheezy, cartoon dog laughter was something, however, that endured and could happily be summoned to the great relief of everyone hovering uncomfortably in his small room scattered with pictures of loved ones, now mostly strangers.

Rarest was the sound of his powerful, steady, low voice, which throughout my life would sing in my ear when he used my pet name, or make my heart (and feet) leap when he used my middle, “Anne Elizabeth!”  

The years had made it weak and weary; a whisper of a voice, ever shaken by unaccountable emotions. 

I last heard Dad during a regular Sunday phone call. Jim handed him the receiver and he began to speak. I don’t recall a word of what he said because all I heard was this forgotten voice – strong and clear and compelling – which I hadn’t heard in ages and the instant made me ache for and anxious.

Anxious to hear Dad speak again. But Dad never did.

Yet in that flash, in those few words, he once again was my wings, my warden, my beacon, my banker, my mentor, my tormentor, my knight in shining armor. 

And everything felt right.

Then it didn’t.

And I cursed myself for not plucking the ether of that very brief moment and stealing that voice to stuff deep in my pockets, where I’d keep it to remind me of the Dad he used to be. 

The dad who’d gather us beneath the covers of their covers on stormy nights, when thunder rolled across Lake Michigan like a mighty wave and lightening set a gnarly, old oak outside their wall of windows afire with its flash of ghostly, silver-blue light. 

In our small tent of sheets, with our heads tucked close together, he’d tell us ghost stories – while Mom helped us count the seconds between the lightening and thunder – and make us giggle with gentle tickles, until the storm passed and we were brave enough to return to our beds upstairs. 

The dad who’d grab the garden hose on hot summer days and with a devilish grin, spray little children who’d dare to cross his thick, green lawn.

The dad who’d takes us on Sunday drives to special, secret destinations, inspiring me to seek out my very own adventures.

And who always gave long, strong hugs of immeasurable comfort.

Who, after raising five children excelling in bad behavior, gradually mellowed and raised the white flag in the form of a hanger he’d found in a closet, draped with some stuff we grew on the bluff and planned to smoke later. 

Walking into the family room where three-fifths of us were lounging and asking very calmly about what he was holding and its reason for hanging, Dad reached for a bud, gave it a squeeze, and hung the harvest from the nearest lampshade.

“It’s not dry yet,” was all he said before leaving the room and all of us slack-jawed.

Such a dry sense of humor.

But Dad also had a temper that no one liked seeing, when all that charm and good looks disappeared behind a mask of unreason, and I was left angry, helpless and confused about how a man so loving and generous could have such potent demons.

But then I got older and my very own demons got bolder, as most people’s do.

So, the Dad I choose to remember is the one that no matter how mad we’d get at each other, by day’s end, “I love you” were always the last words I heard.

As a powerful presence. 

A stubborn dreamer.

A cocky, passionate schemer, who pursued his passions head first, wholeheartedly, sometimes very foolishly, with great success and equal failure. 

His greatest achievement  – a bountiful life, not only in the hearth, but in the home, until off we flew to foster big dreams and face demons of our own.

So, I’m grateful for the moments I talked to him about nothing, apologized for everything, and thanked him for the lives he set in motion – even though he wouldn’t remember any of it by the time the call was over.

But love is in the giving. 

In the moments Dad heard, “I love you.” 

So, I’d tell him different stories about our faraway lives, and in between the same questions and his uncontrollable tears, I‘d try to fill his soon forgotten moments with love and laughter.

And long distance hugs of immeasurable strength and comfort.

Within Close Range: Good Friends and Bad Decisions

Meeting Betsy after dinner at Nonnie and Papa’s. But not before swiping a bottle of booze from their liquor cabinet. Having just been dumped, Betsy’s determined to drown her sorrows. As her best friend, I’m determined to be right by her side. Swig for swig.

Bad Decision Number One.

The cabinet where Nonnie and Papa keep the liquor is in the apartment’s entryway. I’ve rarely – if ever – seen a bottle taken from inside. I’d come across the contents years ago while searching for sweets Nonnie always tucked away in little, glass dishes and old, plastic boxes, in closets, pockets, drawers and, in cabinets, throughout the apartment. The non-candy contents of this particular cabinet meant nothing to me.

Until now.

Taking a moment before dinner to slip into the entry, I squat in front of the small cabinet and quietly open the door. My knees crackle (reminding me of Sunday’s forced genuflecting), and I cringe, as if the telltale sound can surely be heard above the TV.

My heart is pounding through my chest. Catholic guilt is coursing through my veins.

I see bottles of all shapes and sizes. Some look old, dusty, half-drunk and wholly forgotten; while others, still in their special holiday wrapping, look ready for a party they’d never be invited to, and in front all of these, a brand new, unopened quart of Jack Daniels. THIS is the bottle I’ve decided to get drunk with for the very first time.

Bad Decision Number Two.

I’m antsy, anxious and on edge about the heist all through dinner, causing Nonnie and Papa to give each other sideway glances. But I worry myself over nothing. With Nonnie washing up in the kitchen and Papa already in his recliner snoring, I say my good-byes, slip the bottle into my purse, and slide out the door; wondering how soon – if ever – the missing bottle will be discovered, and who will be the first blamed.

Jim, likely… I can live with that.

In minutes, Betsy’s in the car with Jack and me, and we’re heading to Janet Kerf’s party, already in full swing. Scuttling through the crowded, parentless house, to the backyard and the back of a garden shed, we crack the seal.

Bad Decision Number Three.

Timid first sips burn our throats, but quickly warm our insides against the evening’s autumn chill. The more we pass the bottle to each other, the less we care about the burning, the cold, or the dangerous level of alcohol we’re consuming.

Blurred Decision Number Four.

Betsy’s Ex, who we knew to be there by reports from friends making their way in and out of the packed party, becomes the slurred focus.

Blurred Decision Number Five.

Emboldened by my best friend’s broken heart and half a quart of Tennessee’s finest, I wobble my way through the backyard, the kitchen and into the Kerf’s living room where – in the very center of the Lake Forest High School student body – I proclaim at the top of my extremely powerful set of lungs: “Kelly Walsh is an asshole!”

Bold Decision Number Six.

I shout it loud enough to be heard over the blaring music AND din of teenage voices. All heads within earshot – including Betsy’s Ex – turn my way. Having never met, I don’t really know Kelly Walsh and I couldn’t really say whether or not he is, in fact, an asshole. But my best friend – and Jack Daniels – said he is, so I feel justified in my stunning outburst, which momentarily catapults me out of high school obscurity.

The swaying crowd is more confused than concerned and I abruptly stumble from the house and back to my very drunk friend before anyone has a chance to question my center-of-the-party proclamation.

With the ex-boyfriend properly cursed, Jack Daniels completely consumed and friends really concerned, I’m led to a phone where someone helps me dial home and Chris answers. I babble and burble and beg for her help, then return to the back of the garden shed, where me and my best friend wait to be poured into the back of Mom’s car.

The next morning, after having spent most of the evening taking turns hovering over the toilet, Betsy and I are woken at 7 a.m. with a head-splitting phone call and unwelcome reminder that I’d promised to drive friends to an away football game – which would mean following behind a bus filled with a merciless multitude who witnessed my really bad date with Jack last night.

Bad Decision Number – oh, screw it.

Within Close Range: Within Close Range

It’s early spring and still outnumbered are the days of thawing, when the sun shines through the nearly impermeable grey just long enough to make the corral thick and pliable for the heavily-coated ponies to imprint the half-frozen peaks of ice and manure.  

With little inclination to be out of doors, Mia, Mark, Jim and I, along with cousins Mary, Gina and Bill, are all hanging out in the kid’s room upstairs, twitching and giggling and getting riled by Jim, the regular instigator of such behavior. 

But this time, instead of hanging around to help control the chaos, Jim leaves, leaving his younger siblings and cousins to deal with the consequences – the most important of which is that Mark is wound-up and dangerously near the one thing in the room Jim should have taken with him: his Benjamin Air Rifle.

Jim got the rifle for Christmas and had been target practicing with it that morning. Dad doesn’t like the idea of the eight-pump, .177 caliber pellet gun, but Mom’s Missouri farm roots makes her believe that it’s every boy’s initiation into manhood.

In Jim’s defense, he never shoots at living things – mostly targets, trees and tin cans. However, he does get an enormous amount of satisfaction turning its site on siblings for the sheer satisfaction of watching faces contort; which is likely where Mark got the idea.

Picking up the air rifle, he aims it across the room at Gina, sitting on the sofa. Each of us demands he put the weapon down, but Mark already has that look in his eyes which tells us he’s stopped listening, and before anyone can say another word, Mark presses the trigger and discharges what he thinks is air through an empty chamber.

Gina, already curled into a defensive ball, is hit. The lead pellet rips through her jeans and grazes the skin on the back of her left thigh, already bruising when we gather around to inspect the wound.

Everyone – including Mark – is stunned and silent.

Gina’s eyes grow wide and wild.

“You little fucker! You shot me!”

We all look to Mark for an explanation, but he’s off – like his shot – out of the room, down the back stairs, and out the door.

Having returned to the scene at the sound of Gina’s scream, it takes mere moments for Jim to form an angry mob to go in search of the lone shooter, now taking refuge somewhere in the damp, barren woods surrounding our house. We follow the leader around the backyard and back woods, looking for a spark of tell-tale color among the sullen, gray tree trunks. 

Then something turns… Jim’s allegiance. In an instant, we’re all in his sights and half-heartedly running for our lives. Finding a safe spot from his line of vision, I’m watching from the barn stalls when Jim spots Mark weaving through the trees and across the frozen patches of slippery leaves in the back circle by the cottage. 

He’s trying to make a break for the large stretch of trees just across the driveway. From there, it’s certain he can outmaneuver Jim through the woods to safety. The problem is the twenty foot stretch of open pavement.

But spring is in the air and Mark is feeling a little wild.

We all are.

Jim gives the rifle an extra pump and takes aim at the small figure now bounding across the asphalt. In one very lucky shot… he hits his target, and like a plastic carnival duck floating atop a painted carnival pond, Mark is knocked flat. 

Jim insists it was meant to be a “warning” shot.

As all games are officially over at the first sign of blood, Mark limps toward the house where he pulls down his sock to reveal the day’s second wound on the back of his ankle. Mom’s soon on the scene, shaking her head, calloused by the long history of Jim’s overzealous rough-housing; when Mark ends up with stitches and bruises and we end up with a friendly visit from social services. 

Ordering him into the kitchen (with everyone following close behind), she cleans and examines the wound and declares the pellet must have skimmed the surface of his skin (just like Gina’s had, but we felt best not to mention).

Satisfied with Mom’s answer, the hunter and all those hunted walk – and limp – away.

_______

Forty years later, having just had x-rays taken for an orthopedic shoe insert, Mark’s doctor enters the room and hangs the film on the light box, and with a strange look on his face, points to a light spot behind Mark’s left ankle.

“This is a metal object,” he says, “… and it looks like a bullet.”

Both Mark and the doctor stare at the very clear, small, rounded object appearing on the screen. 

“No, that can’t be right,” Mark insists. “There must be a glitch on your x-ray machine.”

But the doctor assures Mark that the object is no glitch.

“Do you happen to know how it got there?” the doctor asks, now looking a little sideways at his patient.

Mark stares at the small metal object imbedded in his achilles tendon and suddenly it all comes flooding back to him. 

Before leaving the parking lot of the doctor’s office, he sent this out to remind us all of a childhood within close range.

Within Close Range: Wisdom Teeth, or The Heart of Darkness

I’m still lying back in the dentist’s chair when I open my eyes. It’s hard to lift my heavy lids, even harder trying to wake from a syrupy haze.

The first clear thing I see are my wisdom teeth – all four – on a pad of cotton laying on my miserably undeveloped chest. 

A smiling nurse takes hold of my forearm and gently guides me off the reclining chair and onto my feet. Legs buckling, a second nurse appears, and with each as a crutch, we wind our way through doorways, down hallways and into the waiting room. 

To Mom. 

The sight of her makes me smile, which makes it hurt, and makes me cry out; making patients sitting patiently, jump in their waiting room seats and glare at me. 

Stare at me. 

Aghast.

Seeing exactly what they don’t want to see.

I couldn’t care less. I just want to sit. 

But Mom and the nurse keep me moving forward toward the exit door.

______

Nothing looks sweeter than the car where, for the first time in years, Mom has to buckle me in. Her steely, blue eyes filled with fuss and concern, and a little horror. But the haze hasn’t lifted and I’m happily floating in it… and out the car window, toward the warm, autumn sun.

And Mom’s taking me home.

With a heavy hand, I lower the window and turn to face the breezes. I smell hot pavement and mid-day traffic and hear the sounds of a motorbike approaching from behind. As the biker passes, his helmeted head looks my way, so I smile in response, leaning heavily against the car door. 

He swerves – suddenly – and passes, quickly. 

Seeing such a knee-jerk reaction makes me fumble for the visor’s mirror, where I find a reflection like B-Science-Fiction: swollen cheeks, a misshapen face, and by the looks of the dry and wet tracks trailing down both sides of my chin, I’ve been drooling. A lot. My lips are also cracked and bloody – as if stranded for weeks in the desert – and it appears as if they’ve been pulled apart by some horrible dental device which has left indentations still visible on my face.

I’m the goddamn monster’s bride. 

But the care is lost in thoughts of home and Mom and Dad’s blue, velvet sofa, with dogs at my feet, a box of tissue at my side, and a channel changer near at hand – which is where Mom leaves me with a kiss on the forehead and errands on her mind, one of which includes filling a prescription for pain medicine for when the strong stuff wears off.

Propped up with pillows, covered with a quilt and a Labrador, the cloud is beginning to clear from my brain, and although my jaws are sore, I’m relishing a day away from school.

The clock in the living room chimes the eleventh hour and I have nothing but a whole day of sleeping and watching television ahead.

Piece of cake.

_______

It’s been two hours since Mom left. The meds have warn off, the haze has lifted, and everything is very, very clear. The pain – which began as a dull ache in my jaws has turned into something hot and angry. 

And my mood, gruesome. 

Dark thoughts come to mind on the crest of each unmedicated, tear-filled minute. 

“Where is she?” I moan as our Labrador, Heather, lets me squeeze tighter.

But the throbbing grows stronger and the darkness grows darker, and my groans are too much even for Heather, who squirms from my grasp and slinks away, tail between her legs.

_______

The chimes of the clock reminds me that Mom’s been gone for three hours and it feels as if my head will explode.

I now consider mother, my captor and tormentor.

And the blue velvet sofa, my prison of pain, where I dig my way deeper into its darkness and despair.

_______

In the fourth hour since Mom abandoned me, Jim and Mark approach my body beneath the blanket. Jim attempts a taunt, but when I slither from the covers and hiss, “Where’ssssss Mom?”, my gloom and sullen glare frightens even Jim.

He gently, but firmly, grabs Mark’s shoulder and they retreat from the brooding scene…

Misery is my only acceptable companion this afternoon. And we’re inseparable. Wretched and contemptible.

_______

The damn clock mocks me again, making it the fifth hour since our return and still no sign of Mom.

Shrouded in the pain and the darkness, still hidden beneath the blankets, my breath, my mood, and the TV, are disagreeable and inconsolable, and my thoughts, matricidal.

“How could she have forgotten about me?” I hiss into the drool-drenched pillow, unable to think of anything beyond the pain and this painful disappointment. 

_______

As the seventh hour tolls and the sky grows dim, the sound of Mom’s approaching footsteps – which should signal the end of my suffering – instead fills me with rage. 

Seething in my blanketed underworld, hurtful words I’ve practiced for hours stand ready at the tip of my tongue. 

I can hear the crinkle of the white, paper bag from the pharmacy and Mom whispering, “Annie”. Both sounds try to pull me from the darkness, but I remain hidden.

“Where have you been!?” is all that squeaks out. 

I don’t really listen to her answer. I just take the bitter pill, turn over and wait for the pain to subside.

Within Close Range: Whiplash Willie

Barely able to see over the dashboard of the ample sedan, toes stretching to reach the pedals, Nonnie is an Italian force on four wheels navigating the gridlock of suburban Chicago.

Her style is unique – driving with more emotion than convention, more conversation than paying attention – usually resulting in last minute lane changes and unpredictable turns, and me sliding from one side of the bountiful back seat to the other.

When the story she’s spinning is a doozy and Nonnie gets roused (which it usually is, and she usually does), up goes her pitch and its volume, and down goes her tiny, bunion-ed foot on the gas pedal, causing the great, lumbering beast of a car – and all its passengers – to lurch forward.

To compensate for accelerating while accentuating, Nonnie then braces herself against the steering wheel and brakes, throwing her kin back against the pristine upholstery.

Repeating this action with each grand inflection.

It’s how she got the nickname, Whiplash Willie, and why, when I see her begin an earful of a tale to whoever called “Dibs on the front seat!” first, I know what’s coming.

We all do.

Buckling up, I pray the story stays short.

And my neck stays strong.

Within Close Range: Uncle John’s Burgundy Velvet Tuxedo Jacket

Uncle John has a burgundy, velvet tuxedo jacket. For decades, he’s worn it to every black tie event, and Aunt Ar makes sure there are plenty.

Atop a sea of black and white convention, the tall, dark man moves quietly in his curious, velvet burgundy.

Well-heeled and headstrong, he ever insists, as long as the jacket fits – it fits.

Unswayed by the loud public statement his offbeat fashion statement makes for such a guarded, taciturn, conventional man.

Within Close Range: This Mile of Road

I love the final miles to our back door. The everyday sights of tree-lined neighborhoods, sleepy main streets, and stretches of flat fields and crisp, white barns silhouetted against waning sunlight.

After a successful fight for window rights, I’ve rolled mine all the way down, ignoring the moans of siblings wishing to remain buried in the stuffy confines of the car. Sticking my head as far out as I can, searching the darkening skies for the first star of the night, I inhale summer – long and hard – accepting the occasional collision with a bug on its own nocturnal journey.

Sheridan Road (which extends north all the way from Chicago) is the final stretch from Lake Bluff to home, straight and scarcely inhabited – except for the occasional sighting of the reflective, red eyes of wildlife at its edge hoping to survive fields and forests, cars and trains, on their way to wherever.

Alongside Sheridan Road, for much of the way, runs the Northwestern Railroad. Its green and yellow cars, faded and familiar, appear beside us long after its piercing horn signaled its approach. I race the train, stepping on an imaginary gas pedal on the candy wrapper-riddled floor. Pressing harder and harder, as if my desire will make Dad drive faster and finally beat the northbound beast.

But the train rolls past our station wagon and all I can do with the same, old loss is gaze into the windows of the passenger cars; into the yellow-tinged lights where, returning from leave, the white-capped sailors of Great Lakes Naval Base lean heavily against the worn, green leather seats and dingy glass. Their lonely figures the last thing I see before Dad signals right and I close my eyes for the final mile to our front door.

There is comfort in this blind ritual; in the knowledge that I know this mile of road so well that the sight of it is secondary to the feel of its curves, the sounds of its inhabitants, the smells of fresh cut fairways, and a giant of a freshwater lake.

Unlike the miles behind us, we travel more leisurely along Shoreacres Road. Breathing easier and rejoicing in nature. In the great, silent custodians – the Maples, Oaks and Elms – which stand over nearly every inch of it; shading us from the summer sun like a vast, green awning and warming us with their blazing, dazzling, daring reds, yellows and oranges in the autumn. Come winter, tree-lined comfort turns to forest mischief when laden branches drop dense clumps of snow on our hoods and on our heads, surprising us and swamping us as we pass below.

The first curve is less than a quarter of a mile along, and drifts sharply to the left, as it begins to follow a tiny, twisting creek, where moonlit nights make the water dance and daylight hours invite Mallards to its mossy banks.

Each fall, just before the curve and the creek, an old Black Walnut tree drops heaps of its brown-green nuts onto the road, which explode beneath the wheels of the wagon as a call to local wildlife who delight in the meat of the thick-shelled nuts and a seasonal signal of that first turn.

Up ahead, I can see in my mind where the road abandons the tiny creek and veers ninety degrees to the right, toward much greater waters. We call this part of the road, “The Straight-Away” because it’s the longest, lineal stretch in the mile journey, inspiring newly licensed teenagers to ignore speed bumps.

Sticking my head even further out the car window as we head down this long strip of cracked and well-worn pavement, I envision the great expanse of manicured green to my left, the tangled woods to my right, and just ahead, at the end of The Straight-Away, the exact spot where lake Michigan demonstrates its greatness by influencing the weather around its shores in a sudden shift from the warm, near-stifling humidity of a Midwest summer night, to a sudden, clammy chill – like leaving the glow of a campfire. Even sleepy siblings will reach a hand out the nearest window to feel it. Because feeling it, is feeling home.

At the end of the Straight-Away, Dad will turn left and we’ll soon pass the old, white clubhouse standing at the edge of the bluff on the right. I imagine it ’s covered in fog and dimly lit by the street lamps lining its long, unapproachable entrance.

Just past the clubhouse, the wagon gently turns left, bringing us past a faded, old, foamy green water-tower that stands at the entrance of our neighborhood. A sad sentry – rusted and outdated, and destined for demolition – its large, steel legs, are our gateway to high jinks in the forests and on the footbridges of the golf course just beyond.

An expansive, white, Georgian house is next on the left; with three, enormous, old pines nearly hiding its existence. Planted long ago in a very neat row, they dominate even the grand, columned entrance. Each pine is a story higher than the two-story house: shadowy and green and fabulously fragrant after a spring shower; while giant villains in the fog, and enormous yuletide beacons, strung from top to bottom with tiny, bright, white lights that always make me cheat – and peek.

Across the road from where the pines stand tall, there’s a big, brutish fence, behind which stands a tragic folly created by a strange woman named Felicia. (We call her Fishy.) On the nights when its colossal, indoor tennis court sets the sky and woods on fire with its jarring, unnatural lights, I hear my father grumble and briefly my eyes for chance to see if, in between the pickets, I can catch a glimpse of this sad, slightly mad, lonely woman, living her sad, slightly mad, lonely life.

Happy to be past it and moments from home. Minutes from bed.

A slight right at the fork and our driveway’s just ahead, on the right. I know exactly when we’ve turned onto it by the sound of gravel crackling like popcorn beneath the wheels of the wagon as it winds its way through the woods and the summer smells of wild onions and Queen Anne’s lace, pungent and sweet.

And familiar.

Bringing me ever nearer to sleep.

Only when I hear the garage door begin its sluggish retreat and the dogs begin to bark, do I open my eyes and end the game, content for having found my way home again.

I close my eyes for one more game. I pretend to be fast asleep, so Dad will carry me the final steps to my bed, and to my dreams.