I was hanging out in Dad’s garage last Sunday evening as the sun was starting its descent in the west. I said it was to do laundry, but actually it was to hang with Dad, who nearing 90, may not be around too much longer and my nephew Geoff, who nearing 28, may just get up and leave one day. I liked to pull up one of the green plastic chairs, sit in the last remaining light so that the dying rays would hit me square in the face and listen to my two male relatives.
Dad didn’t do much in his garage, but there were remains, evidence of prior activity in the abundance of tools hanging from the open beams of the garage construction, all kinds of slicers, wipers, saw blades, drill bits and t-bars. The workbench built from weathered planks had a Jim Beam Bourbon feel about it, accented by the world map stretched above with red pushpins stuck in previously traveled places. Don, uneducated but curious loved to get around and marked each spot he had visited with a red pushpin. He loved to take out a pin and tell a story about what he had seen or done at that exact spot. He was a man of few words, so that when they came they seemed to have more weight than if they had been spoken from someone like my nephew, who spoke like a waterfall, an abundant waterfall.
He came out of the house, settled in another green plastic chair and not bothering to preface his words said, “Well, she was pretty lively today”, (referring to his second wife, Shirley), as he knocked the ash off his Marlboro into the dull amber prism cut ashtray, the cigarette smoke blowing in his face.
“Well, she almost got away from me…” Dad continued describing his day with Shirley where she resided at the assisted care home. “She had to get to the bathroom, and all of the sudden she just jumped up and almost ran as if she was on fire.”
Shirley, a once bright, vibrant, talkative woman had married my father after they had both lost previous partners. Shirley had moved in replacing my mother’s identifiable signs of décor with her own walnut antiques, and small family portraits of her sons, her sisters and one portrait of herself with her father, a New Hampshire farmer. But it was in the rear garden area where Shirley’s presence was most felt, among the succulents she patiently raised from cuttings and then transplanted to luscious ceramic pots. She mixed colors and textures of the succulents so that her garden took on the tones of a Monet painting. When visiting, Shirley seemed to float out of the house and descend into the garden like Loretta Young, her arms out in greeting, a soft serene smile on her face and noting your new blouse or new haircut, would enquire about your offspring and offer a drink, a refreshment, gently chiding her husband Don. She got the drink, though forgetting if it was wine or iced tea you had requested. She was forgetful, but he hadn’t noticed, hadn’t registered the extent until she forgot where she lived one day. Her sons suggested that she move to an assisted care facility, because it just might get to be too much for Old Dad.
“It was better that way,” Dad said. And now it was he who daily drove down Clayton Road to see her, where she resided in a small room without even a container of ivy or a carnation in a bud vase. It was the equivalent to a 5 star hotel with a spacious welcoming lobby, where one could sit with a cup of coffee, a cookie and views of the comings and goings of residents, visitors and staff.
“Well, I almost lost her”, Dad said, his hands clasping before him as if re-living the moment when he had tried to keep Shirley up, on her feet in the bathroom.
“She just slipped out of my hands,” he muttered his eyes glazing over as I saw Shirley, her body spilled out on the floor, as I reached to retrieve my glass of wine by my feet.
“What, you almost lost your wife?” Geoffrey said, his arms on his bent haunches as he rocked back and forth yogi style on his bare feet.
“I hope I never get to the point where I can’t hold onto my wife, that she just slips out of my hands and falls to the floor,” said Geoff, his voice rising like the slight breeze from the west, his voice held tight and wailing like spirits who were listening to what had happened to Shirley.
“Yes, I had to hold on tight to her, and grab her by the back of her neck”, old Dad said. I released my breath as I saw Shirley held like a pup in mother’s mouth, and looked to the sun, which was haloing Geoff’s left shoulder. I moved my chair even further past both to catch the very last rays of the sun and held it tight.