Dad

The doctor’s last count was seven.

Each stroke leaving in its wake

a little less Dad.

Less motivation.

Less vision.

Less presence.

Then he lost his license.

So Dad just sat.

Eventually losing sight

of all that made him tick.

Gave him purpose.

He was good at.

I watched the frustration

when things weren’t clicking

in his once playful eyes,

in his quick and clever mind,

and quietly mourned

the lengthening shadow

that would smother such strong light;

turning weaknesses upon himself,

and others.

The shadow strengthened,

as the once powerful figure

could no longer focus.

Spent the days crying.

The nights wandering.

His underpants,

soiling.

Conversations were now repetitions,

driven by a series of questions

he’d ask again and again

and again.

Always about family,

living and dead.

No steering away

from this endless thread.

But it’s all that remained

as he struggled for thoughts.

For words.

For himself.

The bygone body, swaggering and bold,

began to weaken,

and wither,

and fold

from all those years of sitting.

Doing hours and hours of nothing.

While cherished faces,

and times and places,

steadily stepped into the dark.

Rare became the instants

during my brief, long-distance visits,

when I saw that certain twinkle in his eyes.

When he was pleased,

about to be silly –

or incredibly Dad.

But then

alas

it would pass

and entered this man, instead.

The only thing constant

was his wheezy, cartoon laughter

which he easily summoned

to the great relief of everyone

hovering uncomfortably in his small, sad room

scattered with pictures of loved ones –

now mostly strangers.

Rarest was hearing the voice of his past,

which sang in my ear

when he used my pet name.

Summoned forth in fugitive instants.

Clear and compelling.

Making me unexpectedly ache,

and anxious

to hear Dad speak again.

But Dad never did.

Yet in that flash,

in his strong, familiar voice,

he was my beacon,

my banker

my mentor,

my tormentor,

My father.

And everything felt right.

Then it didn’t.

And I cursed myself

for not plucking from the ether

that all-too-brief moment

to stuff deep within my pockets.

and help me remember

his long and strong hugs

of immeasurable comfort.

His powerful presence.

His stubborn dreaming.

His cocky, foolish, bridge-burning scheming.

The maestro of his successes

and Master of his failures.

But grateful for the moments

we spoke about nothing

and I apologized for everything.

Though he wouldn’t remember anything.

But love is in the giving.

In the times he heard,

I love you.

So, I told him different stories

about faraway lives,

and in between the questions

and his uncontrolled emotions,

I‘d try to fill the ether

with soon forgotten memories.

With love and laughter.

And strong hugs

of immeasurable comfort.

Within Close Range: Curfew

Every mile or so,

I glance to the clock.

Hoping time will stop.

Or that it’s not really five o’clock.

The final mile along the road,

I roll down the windows to air out the smell.

The woodland creatures are beginning to shift,

so once in the driveway, I turn the lights off

and roll slowly along, with the engine hushed.

Safe inside, it’s straight to the fridge.

Grabbing cold pasta, I start up to bed.

But a light from the den stops me instead.

And before I can step a tip to a toe,

Dad rumbles from the den,

strong and low.

And I have nowhere else to go.

Perched on his favorite, swivel chair,

he’s flanked by portraits of ungrateful heirs.

Grumbling at the empty driveway

and disappearing night,

he’s been swiveling there for hours

without a child in sight.

Staring at my bloodshot eyes,

he asks if I know the hour,

and things aren’t looking good

for this early morning flower.

“What could you be doing

until five in the morning?”

All at once, the truth pours forth

without a single warning.

I tell Dad how the day was spent

cooking with some friends,

then going to a drive-in

for a zombie marathon;

about the beautiful night

and the shoreline fire,

and the remarkable moonlight

as we waded in the water.

Baffled by my sudden truths,

Dad takes a moment to recompute.

“I’m just waiting for your sister.”

(as the final plot twister)

were the next

and last

words from his mouth.

Equally confounded,

I leave the scene ungrounded.

Looking from an upstairs window,

just above where Dad keeps vigil,

I see the dawn beginning to dance,

and know, poor Mia,

doesn’t stand

a

chance.

Within Close Range: Inspection

Mom and Dad’s bedroom is on the first floor of the house (at the southern end of everything) allowing them to frequently escape to its sunlit, coziness and away from the five, wild seeds they chose to sow.

This leaves the entire second floor almost entirely adult-free, except for the occasional laundry delivery from Mom and the much less occasional visit from Dad – more ceremonial than social – and usually the result of winter restlessness or weekend thunderstorms keeping him from the golf course.

We only know of his plans when we hear, “INSPECTION in ten minutes!” sound from below, at which point all present scatter from the upstair’s common room to our respective bedrooms, where we begin frenzied attempts to hide all clothing, toys, towels, glasses, plates, books and general shit we’ve left strewn everywhere.

Depending on his level of bother, Dad might only scan the surface of the bedrooms and bathrooms. It’s something each of us quietly prays for as he passes dressers, drawers, desks and closets, cluttered and crammed with quickly concealed crap.

If his heart really isn’t in it, he might demand some dusting and vacuuming, to be inspected later – which will likely not occur – and then disappear below. Knowing this, we’ll half-heartedly obey before returning to reruns, twitching on each other, and littering.

However, if Dad’s disposition is grim, he delves further, looking under beds and behind shower curtains, and, if he’s in a particularly foul mood, sliding open a closet door…

At which point, we’re positively doomed.

Within Close Range: The Backyard Ogre

Seeing Dad unreel the hose and stretch it out across the yard from my bedroom window, I throw on my still damp swimsuit crumpled up in the corner and race down the upstairs hall, broadcasting the new development as I pass each bedroom door.

All five of us are soon suited up and scattered along the edges of the backyard lawn, freshly mown and striped like a big, green flag.

Bound by woodlands, lake and home, the Backyard Ogre’s grassy realm is small, but lush and coveted. And crossing it, irresistible.

Standing in the center of his sodded sovereignty, wielding his long, green, garden weapon, the ogre goes about the business of tending his land; well aware of the surrounding interlopers hiding behind large oaks, lawn furniture, and each other.

Taunting him to take aim, we leap and dance and cartwheel across the well-loved lawn, attacking en masse from the front and sneaking up, one by one, from behind. But the Backyard Ogre’s lengthy weapon, and cunning, and speed, make him fearless and formidable.

All are quickly drenched, but delighted by the cool of the spray in the hot summer sun, and by Dad’s massive grin and momentary focus.

Wearing shoes of fresh cut grass, we follow the Ogre, when he deems the backyard fun is over, and heads to the cool of the pool.

Diving in, always slightly aslant, Dad finds his first target, who, giggling and excited, braces themselves for the certain lift that will come from below and hoist them high with his powerful arms, for a glorious, airborne instant before the splash.

Each of us impatiently waiting our turn, of which there are never enough, before the ogre’s off… usually to golf… while we stay behind, water-logged and pruny, but confident the Ogre will soon be back to tend to his kingdom again.

Within Close Range: Ice Cream and Convertibles

“Who wants ice cream?” comes the call from the bottom of the stairs.

I’m first to the car, just behind Dad (who’s more excited than anyone) and quickly take possession of the coveted front seat when Mom chooses a quiet hour alone over a waffle cone.

With all on board, off we go down Shoreacres Road, as the last of the day’s golfers drift down the final, shadowed fairway, toward the old clubhouse at the edge of the lake. Rolling along at country club speed, I look to the trees heavy with green and suck in the waning day, the moist lake air, and the strong, sweet aroma of fresh cut grass and wild, roadside onions.

Once on Sheridan Road, Dad presses the gas pedal and summer soon whizzes past, behind a veil of windblown hair continuously plucked from my inescapable grin. It’s a straight shot to Lake Forest. 

Twenty minutes to ice cream, to Baskin-Robbins in the old, brick building at the corner Deerpath Road – half a block from the theater where, once, waiting in line for a movie, Chris covered my eyes as a streaker streaked by.

We follow the train tracks all the way to town, past The Lantern and the best burgers in town; past Market Square where, in the late summer twilight, people are milling about with happy, summer smiles on their happy, summer faces.

Behind the brightly illuminated windows just ahead, I’m happy to see the ice cream shop crowded. It gives me more time to stroll up and down and in between people to inspect all 31 flavors of colorful, ice-cold goodness. 

Rocky Road, Mint Chocolate Chip, Bubble Gum are almost irresistible, but greedy for more, I order the Banana Royale, with its two scoops of vanilla ice cream, hot fudge, chopped nuts, whipped cream, topped with Maraschino cherry…

…and a dubious look from Dad. 

Eating the bright red cherry staining the peak of the whipped cream pile reminds me of Uncle Louie and his big Oldsmobile, with its massive back window filled with baseball caps; and his massive trunk filled with giant bottles, including the largest jar of Maraschino cherries I’ve ever seen.

Still unopened in our kitchen cupboard.

Loath to re-admit offspring with fast melting ice cream into his always pristine car, Dad leads his troop toward Market Square where we admire the stores from a drippy distance. 

Scanning the dimmed display cabinets and shiny glass countertops of Marshall Field’s Department store makes me think about the deliciousness of Frango Mints, and the distinctiveness of the peculiar, old lady in the first floor makeup department, who looks as if she’s been there absolutely forever. 

She fascinates me. 

Always, always, dressed in black, which perfectly matches her jet-black bob, accentuated with a precisely penciled-in, black as pitch, widow’s peak.

A steadfast fancy from her flapper days? 

Her happy days?

Past the old rec center and the stationary store, I pause at the window of Kiddle’s to dig at the fudge from the bottom of my bowl and marvel at the bicycles and basketballs, the helmets, t-shirts, bats and rackets covering every inch of wall from its old, wooden floor to its elaborate, tin ceiling. (Where someone’s day was made the day Dad bought bikes for all seven of us.)

From here, I set my sights on Market Square Bakery. On the same old, dusty display cakes sitting in the same, old dusty display windows. Knowing well what glorious, sugary delights will soon be baking on the other side of the “Closed” sign, making Mom’s after-school errands bearable. 

Always scanning the sidewalks and the square’s grassy center for a friend among the small crowds gathered around the fountain and benches, relishing the cool of the evening. Delighted by the sight of any familiar face and the feeling of community. Intimacy.  

So I make my Banana Royale last. Savoring every moment in every bite as we round the square and pass a real estate office where lighted photos of formidable houses make window-shoppers dream… big.

As the last of the ice cream disappears, and the end of the fourth side of the square is near, I know we’re almost to the car, but not until we pass my very favorite spot –  Pasquesi’s, now dark and quiet.

Inside, there’s a bell on its door that signals Mr. P. to look up from the back of his simple, splendid, tiny purple lunch counter, as he offers up the best and sloppiest of Sloppy Joe’s, the cheesiest of cheese dogs, and the warmest of warm smiles. 

Greeting all as if long lost friends finally coming home. 

Always making me feel that I belong.

Back at the car and forced to relinquish the front seat for a sibling demanding their turn, I lower myself from the cool, night air and, in the quiet of an ice cream coma, count the streetlights passing above, until the stars and the dark replace them, the crickets’ song grows strong, and my eyes grow heavy.