This past Monday was the seventh anniversary of my father’s death. Were he still alive, he would have been 98 the previous week; as it was he made it to 91, and in his latter years was fond of telling me that while he’d witnessed both World Wars, the Great Depression, the invention of radio and television, and the dawn of commercial aviation and space travel, the more recent version of modernity, i.e., my lifetime, had been fairly unremarkable.
I tried pointing out the dramatic, wide-ranging impact of personal computers, cell phones and the internet, but he would have none of that, dismissing email, for example, as a glorified version of the pneumatic tubes that used to send messages and documents whizzing from office to office in the early part of the 20th century.
In short, he could be as cranky as I can, and had enjoyed the benefit of several extra decades in which to cultivate that crankiness. As a result, we spent a great deal of time getting on each other’s nerves, beginning perhaps when he dismissed Elvis, the Beatles, and rock and roll in general as “a bunch of noise” and continuing until a series of injuries and illnesses knocked the stuffing out of him in his late 80s, finally leaving him completely dependent on the ministrations of others.
Even then, when atrophying muscles and creeping dementia left him scarcely able to carry on a conversation, let alone a cogent argument, elements of contentiousness remained. On his 89th birthday I took him for a ride around town, which he seemed to enjoy, but the real highlight came as we arrived home, when, in response to a none too gentle prodding from him, I acknowledged having been “stupid” for getting myself expelled from college back in 1965.
The way his face lit up, you’d have thought he’d won the lottery and/or Republicans had been permanently barred from running for public office. It was not because of any desire to humiliate me nor a genuine belief that I was in fact stupid; what mattered was my admission that I had been wrong and he had been right. He lived for such moments, such victories, hollow though they might ultimately prove to be.
It was during that same period, on his good days, that he would open up to me about subjects he’d previously refused to discuss, including World War II, which he’d spent in France, Luxembourg and Germany. Unable to recall things that had happened two minutes earlier, he could recite in prodigious detail the sights and sounds of doughboys marching off to the Great War in 1917 and their considerably more muted return a year and a half later, and of his own brush with death in the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918. There was that night in the hospital when, under heavy sedation, he didn’t recognize my brother or myself, yet could and did name every child in his first grade class (circa 1919), where in class each child had sat, what street he or she had lived on, and what his or her father had done for a living.
A funny thing – both strange and ha-ha – the human mind is, but no less funny than relationships between fathers and sons. I was living in England during my father’s last years, but spent considerable time in California trying to help care for him. I’ll admit that at first I did it mostly out of a sense of duty, but as time went on, I discovered that I was gaining as much as – perhaps more than – I was giving.
People often ask if I regret the many years during which my father and I were at least partially estranged, or the fact that we seldom had the sort of closeness I see, for example, between my younger brother and his son. And they’re usually surprised when I say no, not really, that whatever I might have wished for – and for many of my earlier years I was barely capable of having wishes, let alone bringing them to fruition – things couldn’t have been much different. I don’t mean to push blame in either direction, but neither of us was capable of surmounting the chasm of misunderstanding and mistrust that divided us. And such was life. By the time I found the words I needed to say, and the courage to say them, he had slipped into a coma from which he only partially awakened before dying the following afternoon.
Unless there’s some great reckoning up yonder in the sky, where we all meet up once more to exchange reminiscences and recriminations, I’ll never know if he heard those last few things I told him, but my sense was that he did, and that they helped him to finally let go and peacefully slip away. Ever since then I’ve made a practice of spending some time with my mother, either on the phone or, when possible, in person, on the anniversary of his death and/or his birthday a week earlier.
This year I was fortunate enough to be staying with her in California, and we took advantage of the beautiful sunny day to travel over to San Francisco and revisit some of the places she and my dad used to frequent during the years when their own two feet and a senior citizen Muni ticket were all the magic carpet they needed to transport them to wondrous realms in every corner of their adopted home town.
I didn’t think of it till later, but I wish I’d taken a detour up Taylor Street, where Dad celebrated his 70th birthday by running to the top of Russian Hill and back down again, his faint but unmistakable smile laying down the challenge: “Let’s see if you can manage that when you’re 70.” He would have been 88 or so when, still dashing around town as if he owned the place, he took a tumble over a curb in downtown Berkeley that shattered both his leg and his confidence and at last put an end to his rambling ways.
We drove along the Marina, stopping to bask in the glorious sunshine at the Palace of Fine Arts, then on through the Presidio and out to Land’s End. The original plan had been to dine at Louis’ Restaurant, the poor man’s Cliff House, but it’s closed until April for remodeling, so we admired the view overlooking Sutro Baths, wondered what had become of all the seals on Seal Rock, and headed across the Golden Gate Bridge into the wilds of Marin County.
In olden, more civilized days, Muni used to run a regular bus service that would carry my parents to the heart of the Marin Headlands, a vast, sprawling open space that was once home to several forts and thousands of military personnel prepared to repel would-be invaders, but which has now been incorporated into the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Cliff tops afford views of the Bridge, the Bay, and San Francisco equal if not superior to those available to passengers of low-flying aircraft; then the road drops away at a vertiginous 18% grade that leaves a driver – this one, anyway – clinging to the steering wheel as one does the handrail of a roller coaster about to take its first precipitous plunge, and praying that the brakes, with both feet applied for extra security, will survive the descent.
I drove for many years over primitive and often icy or mud-slick mountain roads in Northern California’s Emerald Triangle, but none of them ever terrified me as much as those first few minutes with the nose of our car seeming to point almost straight down and the windshield framing a view of nothing – seriously, nothing – but the Pacific Ocean a thousand feet below.
But we survived, even if the acro- and agoraphobia I didn’t know I had are triggered once again by the mere recollection of that drive, and arrived at the incredibly tranquil beachside setting where the bus used to drop off Mom and Dad and where’d they’d wander the hills – hills that reminded me strangely of Iceland’s more verdant regions – before enjoying a picnic lunch.
At 92 Mom is no longer up to the kind of hill walking she once did – it was, in fact, on a weekend hiking trip in the late 1930s that she and Dad first met – but she can still manage a quarter or half mile on level ground, and after exploring a bit, we stood watching the wet-suited surfers silhouetted by the fast-declining sun, relentlessly paddling out in search of that perfect wave before reluctantly settling for a more or less adequate one.
We visited what had once been a chapel, now converted to a visitor center replete with native memorabilia, stuffed animals, and dioramas aimed at demonstrating what life had been like before the coming of the white man. Mom bought a nicely illustrated coffee mug, and I bought a half-priced 2011 calendar featuring photos of “California The Beautiful” (Californians are not generally characterized by their self-effacing modesty) for my kitchen back in Brooklyn.
We finished off the day in Sausalito, the winter darkness having fallen, bringing with it a sharp chill that banished the breathless, springlike warmth we’d basked in an hour before. It’s kind of a tradition on such days that we dine at Denny’s, another of Mom and Dad’s habitual haunts, but on impulse I spun the car around and stopped in front of a fish and chips place just off the main drag.
It was nothing fancy and somewhat overpriced, but the perfect ending to an almost perfect day (I’d managed to get us lost a couple times and been forced to backtrack over a few of San Francisco’s less lovely byways). Mom said, “I think this is the way to pay tribute to your dad, by going to places he loved and doing things he loved to do.” She was right, of course; it was a day not for sadness or for moping over memories, but for celebration of the life he lived, and the life we continue to share.