As I continue to pack in preparation for the move from Schoharie to Schenectady at some not-yet-determined date, I find myself awash in a flood of accidental memories that short-circuit and distract me from the task. Last week’s Thanksgiving holiday unleashed a torrent of thoughts, resurrected from the mid-1980s, yet as clear and luminous as the recent frosty moon of November.
In one string of associations, I arrive at the house I bought in upstate New York more than 30 years ago. I enter. The phone rings. Reluctantly, a cousin’s husband tells me that my dad died earlier that morning. With the three-hour return to New York City and then additional travel to Neshaminy Falls, Pa., I head out disoriented and numb, anxious not to lose the day’s light.
The late morning is cold and overcast as I leave the house that my dad had never seen. I recall how proud he seemed that I had anchored myself, finally. The year before, he and my mother had planned a look-see visit. In preparation, I select a table near the fireplace and with a mountain view at a favorite restaurant. I ensure that it is wheelchair accessible. My mother becomes sick; they cancel the trip.
I know dad wants to make suggestions. He is, after all, a general contractor in forced retirement because of his health. In fact, he should have retired long before then. Ironically, as the son of that contractor, I am easily challenged with the simple flicking of a switch. This man, my dad, hails from a family of 13. By necessity, he’s been gainfully employed at backbreaking “man’s work” since the age of seven. Perhaps that’s why he goes out of his way to ensure that college and not working with my hands would be my future.
I drive for what seems forever. The clouds lift. The day turns warm. The sky is spectacular. I weep so deeply and involuntarily that I pull to the shoulder several times so that I could dry out and see to continue. Although mixed with sorrow, the tears mostly speak of fury; rage that the day is so beautiful when I am so sad, so agonized. I want the world to feel and reflect what I feel. It doesn’t.
For all outward appearances, dad and I always dance in an arms-length relationship. He never stands for the incessant back-talk that had become the arrogant sass of my teenage years. And, he never attends anything I do -- except college graduation. For years, I harbor resentment.
Toward the end of his life, after a second stroke, I visit my parents at Thanksgiving. Dad is proud of their new house with a fireplace in the den and insists that I sit in front of it.
In my mind’s eye, I see our extended family gathered at the table. Dad indicates that he wants to sit in the living room. We know it is frustrating for him to be at the table and not to be able to speak: watching quiz shows offers an escape.
From show to show and without difficulty, we hear him call out answers to questions posed by the on-air hosts. My mother and I smile at this seemingly "Twilight Zone" turn of events that enables him to make connections, speak and almost consistently answer correctly. We listen, laugh and marvel at his string of correct answers, nearly all of which elude the rest of us.
From the table, we half-hear whatever shows dad watches in the background. The host asks a question about football. My cousin’s husband answers incorrectly. My dad shouts the correct answer and then adds, “That's why I never went to any of Butch's games (he often called me Butch for reasons neither I nor anyone ever knew); I never wanted to see him get hurt!”
The non-sequitur is sudden and unexpected, I choke up and leave the room, grasping the expanse of the remark that comes from a place so deeply rooted in a man of a generation that rarely speaks about or expresses feelings unless loosened by drink. For me, his remark is an involuntary declaration of love and caring that in an instant answers a lifetime of questions and assuages decades of hurt.
At his cremation, the funeral director asks if I want time alone with dad. I had not thought about it. After everyone leaves, the undertaker lifts the lid of the closed coffin, giving me an opportunity to see my dad for the first time since his death. His face is discolored. He is prepared for the crematorium, not a viewing.
Like my dad in life, I find myself at a loss for words, unable to convey the mix of thoughts and feelings that overwhelm me.
“Thank you, Dad. I love you” is all I muster, confused and unsure in the moment if both statements are sufficient, true or if I actually voiced them.
In packing for my inevitable move, I remain reluctant to discard artifacts -– from photographs, cards, and letters -- that I’ve saved for years. Yet, I realize more keenly than ever that most are of little consequence. The essence of each -– like my memories of dad -- is securely locked within me as the man I have become because of the experiences they represent.
From within these remembered thoughts of days come and gone, I give thanks that I’m ready, mostly, bolstered and buttressed by the experiences of a lifetime to date, for the uncharted journey ahead in the yet-to-be written chapter on Thom in Schenectady.
A frequent blogger, Thom O’Connor closely follows the housing market, waiting for the best-case option to sell and move on. Thom dedicates this blog to new friend Anthony Commisso, who is experiencing his own personal passage toward healing during this joyous and, at times, painful holiday season.