Monday, April 25, 2005

Without Reprieve

I'm not one to complain, but I'm facing a new and separate anguish. Tomorrow will be two weeks since the 5:45AM phone call from Mom, the one I thought meant Grandma, and found myself repeating, "Dad? Dad? Are you sure? Dad?" I was crumpled on the cold kitchen linoleum, wanting to wake up from a bad, bad dream. And now I'm having to sit and wait for the right call, the one that should have come, because she isn't eating and keeps asking to go back to bed so she can die. At 94 she has the right to do so, but what in the world are we going to do? I think I'm drowning in grief. It seems like everyone in the whole world is dying. That morning the leather and metal of the Pontiac seemed like the blackest thing I'd ever been surrounded by, watching the first sunrise without Dad dawn on the emptiness of the world, the rolling miles of sagebrush and dirt. Kelly got picked up going 86mph by a Lincoln County Sheriff, the coroner who had just left Mom's. He just wanted to get us there, Morgan and I, stock still and silent and stunned, one beside and one behind him. Jerry let us go right away, saying, "slow down. We don't want another tragedy."

Saturday the 23rd was gorgeous, flashbulb-bright and warm. Guy drove us to the memorial service in the ’64 Impala he bought on one of many adventures with Dad. Dad was particularly pleased with that long straight car, glossy black like oil, with a creamy white top and silver upholstery, a smooth rumbling engine, perfect chrome, whitewall tires with rear skirts and two diagonal antennae gracefully flanking the flawless trunk. Bob brought his Thunderbird, lacquered lipstick red, continental kit, and the sparkling new hubcaps Dad never got to see. He parked it in front of the Eagle bar after the ceremony. Eighty people there and more had called to say they wished they could be, Casper and Armand and Luigi, Cotton, Brent and Mike in Sunday best, from Arizona Dad's brother Jay with the same blue eyes and his sister Marlina with her beautiful children; Sue sang My Way with only a little waver when she glanced at Mom, and it couldn’t have been more right. We had two foam-core poster boards covered with chronological photographs of Dad's life, in which he was almost always obviously happy. (I have his strange smile-inflated cheeks. So does Morgan.) Dad at a slot machine, Dad with his blue Kenworth, Dad on the deck of Lil's boat in Santa Monica, Dad on an overburdened mule in Mexico, Dad rolling in grass. Forever after Ken called him Bear. It fit.

I sobbed through the eulogy I wrote and read, echoes of which you might recognize from recent blog posts, before I knew they were going to come in handy:

My dad was never without four things: wheels, friends, a story to tell, and advice to give.

We all saw the automobiles; they came and went, overlapping, spilling out of his garages and driveways and onto the street. He bought them, he repaired them, he painted them, he tinkered with them, he raced them, he sold them, and he drove them in parades and up long desert highways. If it had wheels, Dad could fix it. He knew cars, and he loved them. He loved their power and intricacy and the freedom they provide. He just couldn’t get enough.

There were no strangers to Dad. Something about him brought out a special brand of devotion in others. He expected the best from everyone, but enjoyed the simplest things about them as well. He talked to strangers in line. He called all waitresses “hon” and charmed people with a quick wit and ready smile. It wasn’t hard to entertain him. It wasn’t always easy to please him. But it was always the most natural thing in the world to love him.

His stories were a crazy collection of snapshots taken throughout his remarkable life. Dad had a headlong way of tackling things that didn’t always produce the best results but which consistently fostered great stories. Dad had funny stories, and Dad had scary stories, stories about close shaves and high adventures. Dad loved jokes and news and debates and, in a dignified way, gossip. Lately we teased him about being nosy. I think he was just desperately curious about everything. He had a burning desire for learning that is rare, and the more blurred those blue eyes got, the sharper the dazzling mind became.

“I’m gonna tell you something.” He heard that line from his father, and we heard it from him, and when it was spoken you knew he meant business. He was about to dispense something really important, some bit of automotive genius or investment tip or a great political truth. I know from experience his advice was good, even if it sometimes came in a form that was hard to swallow. There was never any doubt that he meant well. My favorite words of advice from Dad to me had to do with driving: “never back up when you can go forward.” He meant it in a purely automotive sense but I couldn’t help seeing how it was the philosophy he lived by, and it somehow sneaks its way into everything I do. He simply did what he thought he should and lived with the consequences. He had strong opinions based on good common sense and he never hesitated to share them. Of course, his best advice probably had to do with cars.

These were only the obvious things about Dad, but then, he was never a person with much to hide. I guess I’m lucky in a way, because his recent decline was probably the only reason his flights of fancy were grounded long enough for me to get to know him better. He bore his captivity with a kind of resignation, but I’m sure he expected to someday be well enough again to do all the things he enjoyed. Ironically, it was sitting down to wait for that day that probably ensured it would never come. There were only rare moments of despair though, and he was spared a great deal of suffering. In the end he died the way I’m so proud he lived: exactly the way he wanted to.


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