Although my father was a WW2 Army Air Corp officer, pilot and a veteran who flew with the prestigious and famed Flying Tiger’s under General Chenault, my Dad was more than a hotshot pilot who skipped B-24 Liberators over the tips of the Himalayan Mountains in China-Burma. To me, he was a god. Everyone loved my father or at the very least, held him in high respect.
When my mother died in my mid-twenties, my dad lost his dearest friend, his lover, his dance partner and his most divine guiding spirit. With her passing, he was now a beaten man. Subsequently, he broke away from the doldrums of everyday life and agreed to attend single and divorced activity groups. It was through these groups he met a woman whom he dated for several years afterward.
It was during those years Dad began suffering from another fateful blow. The diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease. Although my father met every adversity head on and conquered most with ease, it became clearly evident this affliction would slowly melt his freedom, his mobility and most importantly, his pride. As the months and years passed, he slowly withered to a frailty I never envisioned.
Whether by love or fear of loneliness, Dad considered marrying the woman he had dated for so long. It was nice seeing Dad find a partner that shared not only his happiness, but cared for his ills and pains. Dad cared for hers as well. Eventually, he sold the house we grew up in and moved into her more expansive dwelling, two hours south of us. A year later on New Year’s Eve, Dad finally married her in a very private ceremony. Dad seemed happy and joyful in being with her. Several years passed and with some surprise, Dad surprisingly announced he was moving to southern California. His reasoning was that the New York winters were just too harsh for his fragile body to bear.
Watching my Dad leave was heartbreaking. In the pit of my stomach, I perceived this frail man may have only a few good years left. My gut told me it was just a matter of time before he would deteriorate quickly thereafter. A year passed by with letters and phone calls replacing our biweekly get-together, the occasional family celebration and holiday visitations. I missed my Dad.
My loneliness were becoming terribly troublesome, so one day I decided to call my brother out of the blue. He was the oldest and let’s be honest; his favorite. As soon as he answered the phone, I blurted out, “Let’s take a trip to California and see Dad.” Before he could respond, I said, “He will get a kick out of seeing his sons again and I know for a fact, it will make ME feel better!”
After an awkward moment of silence, he responded in a solemn and dead-panned tone. “I’m in. When do we go?” His birthday was in two weeks and we decided that would be the perfect time to see him. We could hardly contain our excitement.
“Should we call first?”, my brother asked. We weighed the pro’s and con’s of an eye-opening visit. Excitement could be dangerous in his state, but Dad was a man who notoriously loved surprises. We decided our best approach would be to have a three-way call with him and his wife that evening. We wanted to concoct a scheme of letting his wife know without making Dad aware. Ten minutes into the conversation we found our opportunity. Dad had to excuse himself for a few minutes and we used that chance to tell her what we had in store for Dad. She agreed to keep our impending visit a secret.
As the plane landed, I called my brother to find out where he was. He flew in on an earlier flight and had picked up the rental car. Meeting me out front, I hugged my brother and threw my suitcase into the trunk of the rental. Gathering in the excitement of seeing each other, I immediately plugged Dad’s address into the car’s GPS. We were less than an hour away and the drive gave us time to reacquaint with each other. Most of the conversation centered around Dad and what we expected his response would be when his boys came busting through his front door. We laughed at the possibilities and gave a little thought at the probable responses that he would come up with. As we dreamed up the many probable scenario’s, the anticipated result was always a grand smile on our father’s face.
Within twenty minutes of leaving the highway, the GPS guided us through a picturesque view through the mountainous passes. Once we made it through the winding pass, several housing developments came into view. The landscape changed from mountainous to desert-like conditions. I checked the GPS map and it showed we were less than five minutes away. My adrenaline kick in and looked over at my brothers face for his reaction. Although it already had been a long day for both of us, he was getting his second wind as well. Within minutes, we found ourselves pulling into the driveway.
Like the rest of the houses in this gated community, it was a quaint, twelve hundred square foot ranch structure with a small covered porch in the front. What struck me as very odd was that all the houses had little to no green grass to speak of. Instead they opted to replace their contemporary yards with white pebble stones. For someone who loved to mow his yard on a weekly basis, I was a bit shocked to see this. We peeked at the windows to see if there was any sign of movement. Neither of us saw anything but I knew that they were home. As my brother exited the car and headed toward the trunk, I grabbed his arm and said, “We can come back for that stuff. Lets just walk in and say hello.” He agreed and we scampered toward the front door and rang the doorbell.
Dad’s wife, Vivian answered the door and she instantly smiled from ear to ear. She whispered to us that Dad was in the kitchen at the table and that we should go right in. I could hear Dad in the background asking who was at the door. We quickly gave Vivian a hug and silently made our way back to the kitchen. There we stood in the doorway with grins on our faces and waited until our Dad would notice our presence. It took much longer than we thought, as Dad was in deep concentration while cutting coupons from a local newspaper. Obviously agitated that Vivian had not responded to his initial question, he started to look up and asked her again who was at the door. Noticing two figures at the doorway, he stopped in mid sentence and squinted at the apparitions that appeared before him.
He gave an astonishing look and suddenly, a tear formed on his eighty-one year old cheek. With his arms outspread, an epic hugging event ensued. We embraced in the middle of the kitchen and patted each other’s backs; taking in the look of each others faces. We found ourselves sat down at the table, as Vivian came in to join the raucous occasion. Before we knew it, food was served and we were eating light sandwiches and were wetting our whistles on fine libations. As the evening progressed, Vivian excused herself for bed, but insisted we stay up and talk with our father. He was enjoying the bantering so much, she didn’t have the heart of ending it too soon.
When you are faced with filling up an evening chat with someone who knows you so intimately, you struggle for topics that can be engaging and interesting. “Remember those summer vacations at Lake George?”, my brother clamored. A glimmer and glean showed up in my father’s eyes. Bingo!
“Remember? Can you remember the boat rides to Lake George?”, I muttered. Dad sat silently as his two boys started reminiscing. My brother chuckled, “And the SPEECH we always heard?”. My brother’s tone was becoming cynical. Dad loved cynical, but fun banter. Taking the cue from my brother, I said with an animated puffed out chest, “Kids? Kids!! I want you to KNOW that if the boat flips over…”
Without missing a beat, my brother chimed in with bravado “I’m going to save your Mother FIRST, so…” We both took in a deep breath and in unison, we bellowed, “make SURE you have your life preservers on.” An immediate laughter ensued between us, nearly to the point we almost forgot Dad was there! We turned to Dad with huge smiles on our red faces. We both anticipated Dad’s half smirk, fake “shock and dismay” gaze and miffed disgust at our obvious poor interpretation of his grand ritual!
To our shock and dismay though, Dad was staring at us and sobbing in silence. The pain instantly swelled in his eyes and we both reached out to him as though he would collapse any moment. Were the memories too painful? Did we make a mistake reliving such moments?
We huddled around him, with an arm wrapped over his frail shoulders. We sought to comfort him in whatever way possible. “Dad! What’s wrong?” we said together. Before we knew it, he grabbed each of our wrists and squeezed tightly. His hands were shaking. It hurt. “You boys just don’t understand.”, Dad said in a shaky voice. His knuckles whitened as he clenched tighter around our wrists.
“What, Dad? What is it that we don’t understand?”, I said. My brother and I gazed at each other. We were baffled, confused and equally scared. Shaking his head, Dad uttered in a whispered but firm voice, “I meant every word of that. Every time I said it, I meant it. If that boat had flipped over, I would have saved your mother first!”
He paused and took a deep breath and sigh, “Now I am going to tell you why. After saving your mother first, I would have gone back to save all of you. I would have dived deeper than I would have ever dared. I would have held my breath longer than I ever thought possible. I would have had no fear to do whatever I had to do, to save you boys and your sisters. I would have gone to the brink of death for all of you.”
“We know that Dad!”, my brother said in a soft and reassuring voice.
“But you don’t know why, son. The why is because I knew your Mother would pull me back to safety if she ever thought for one moment I would die. I always knew that and when you know that, you have no fear in diving deeper; holding your breath longer or doing whatever needs to be done to save your children. You have an inner peace and strength knowing your wife, your partner, your best friend, will save you – no matter what. You lose all fear, son and your mother knew I didn’t have to have any fear!”
He paused and squinted his eyes and nodded confidently, “I would have saved your mother first.” His grip lightened and the shaking subsided. “I’m going to bed now, boys.” In silence, we assisted Dad to his feet and adjusted the walker in front of him. Without any eye contact he patted our hands, nodded his head and murmured, “I’m okay, boys. I’m okay.”
To this day, I retain the vivid image of his frail body hunched over his walker and exiting the room with his slow but deliberate shuffled steps. We watched in silence as he vanished into the dark hallway and listened intently as the shuffled steps became more faint. With neither of us saying a word, our gazes were transfixed on the darkened hallway as we waited for Dad to reach his bedroom. We heard his door open and close behind him. Our silence continued and without an acknowledgment to what we had just witnessed, my brother turned and walked away with his head down. I think he was sobbing and felt ashamed that I would notice.
I wasn’t sure where I was but I knew I was alone in my emptiness. An overwhelming emotional swell gripped my core. My throat tightened and my stomach became sickly. I choked back my own reality as I made an instant comparison of my parents marriage, love and partnership with my very own. From that moment it was clear.
My wife would have never pulled me back if our boat had ever flipped over.