Shortly after my father’s death, my mother and brothers decided that I should assume ownership of his car. Because it was larger and heavier than the one I’d owned for several years and would ostensibly secure my personal safety to a greater extent, they agreed I should have it. Though my initial reaction was one of satisfaction, it quickly acquired an aura of ambivalence. I felt slightly guilty that the quality of my life might improve simply because my father had died. I had done nothing to earn the car and was no more deserving of it than either brother. However, as the decision had been made in my absence, and had apparently been thoroughly considered by all concerned, I accepted the offer.
For several weeks, I was unable to ask for the car keys and continued to drive my smaller car back and forth from my condominium in a nearby suburb to my mother and father’s home on the bay. Every few days, my mother moved the car from one side of the street to the other to accommodate the local street-cleaning ordinance, making it appear as if the car had grown slightly restless awaiting my father’s return, like a lonesome dog pacing by the gate. I began to look for the car when I turned onto their street. Sometimes it was directly in front of the house, while other times it was further down the block. It grew dusty and looked sad.
I was relieved when my mother finally offered me the keys several days after my birthday. However, in my father’s absence, the car’s battery also died, and so my mother drove it to the local body shop and left it there for repairs. We decided that I should retrieve it, leaving mine in its place in their parking lot, until it could be picked up also. Driving to the body shop, I could clearly see my father’s car in the lot as I turned the corner. The proprietor and I commiserated about my father’s untimely death, and when I took the key from his hand, I nervously ran my fingers along the chain like a rosary. After receiving a courtesy wash, the car was released to me. I silently transferred the last few personal possessions from my old car, leaving only a “for sale” sign exposed in its window on which was written my phone number and the asking price, and drove away.
Once back at my mother’s house, the house that had been theirs but was now hers, I pondered the sad task of examining and removing the last of my father’s belongings remaining in the car. My brother had already removed the files and papers essential to running the business they’d shared for twenty years. I was left with the flotsam and jetsam of my father’s daily life, the bits and pieces that innocently accrue, becoming revelatory only when considered from a posthumous perspective. Because my grief and shock were still violently raw, I handled every scrap as if it were a religious icon to be treasured, housed in this latter-day reliquary, the automobile. Each object was gently observed, sorted, catalogued and finally removed to a box on the kitchen table awaiting my mother’s final disposition.
I saved every object except a crushed piece of candy that I recognized as being the sort dispensed by cashiers in the moderately priced breakfast or luncheon restaurants frequented by busy working individuals. From a corner of the trunk I removed two very worn bungie cords. In the center of the trunk sat a tan canvas bag originally used to transport gym clothes but now containing several very old and dirty telephones and a new white towel that smelled like my father’s office. Unable to control myself, I wept into the towel with such force that I had to sit down. The trunk also contained several large plastic bags of the type sold by my father and brother in their janitorial supply business. I decided to keep them, though wasn’t sure why.
When I finally removed everything that had once belonged to my father and would now belong to my mother, including a very torn black yarmulke, I sat down in the driver’s seat to remove the last bits of trash from the car’s interior. After tossing several stretched-out rubber bands and a dried out pen, I noticed a tiny scrap of torn paper in a little bin near the ashtray and picked it up. Looking more closely, I saw that the paper had been torn hastily from the margin of a piece of newsprint from the Los Angeles Times dated four years earlier, December 9, 1998. As is so often the case when no other writing pad was within reach, my father had used instead a sliver of newsprint upon which he had written three cryptic directives: Be well. Do good things. Keep in touch.
I studied the familiar printing, the swooping “T’s,” the boldly written consonants and fluid vowels and wondered to whom these words were intended. Not knowing exactly when they were written, I couldn’t help but wonder whether my father had actually saved that scrap for four years or whether it had simply acquired the invisibility that befalls most mundane objects when viewed on a daily basis. I stared at the shred, asking myself when my father might have written those enigmatic yet pithy instructions. Did he write those words four years earlier or perhaps nearer to the date of his death, quickly tearing a scrap from an old newspaper article that had ceased to be important. Whenever he wrote them, it was clear to me that his message was urgent, that he felt compelled to record his thoughts before they evaporated.
I sit in the car in the garage and think about my father, how he had been an articulate man with an expansive sense of humor. He connected with others via the spoken word and frequently arranged his thoughts in writing prior to delivering them orally. Tragically, he developed an acute aphasia during the last month or so before he died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage, making it frustratingly impossible for him to express himself. He could no longer write, speak or read well.
I listen to the sounds of the gardener’s loud equipment next door and chastise myself for having failed to detect the incipient signs of disease earlier in its course. Apparently, he and my mother had colluded to hide this rapidly worsening disorder, telling themselves it was due to normal forgetfulness or fatigue or whatever. Understandably, they were unable to admit that something was terribly wrong, something horrible was happening.
I selfishly went away for the New Year’s holiday after having an uncharacteristically loopy telephone exchange with my father. I went away when it was clear to me that he had developed an acute aphasia. Maybe he’s tired, I rationalized to myself, though I feared something much worse, diseases for which I could barely formulate the words, “stroke,” “transient ischemic attack,” even more terrible words like “aneurysm” or “tumor” or “cancer.” I continued on with my train of thought, “If something’s wrong, Mom will call me immediately.” When no phone call came, I went off with my friends, assuming that he must be okay but nagged by fears that I had exercised very poor judgment.
Several days into the trip, while driving to the grocery store for barbecue supplies with my best friend, whose mother had recently died, I mentioned my concerns. She and I looked at each other for a brief moment when our true fears were communicated. Before we could address the enormity of those terrors, we resumed our defensive postures by stepping back into the safety of our professional roles, she, the nurse, and I, the psychotherapist. After buying all the junky food products that appeal to hungry kids drunk on the indulgences of school vacation, we drove out of the parking lot joking about our own encroaching mid-life memory lapses. We talked about the beautiful scenery, about our friendship spanning nearly forty-five years and enjoyed our few precious moments alone together. I said nothing more about my fears.
With my index finger, I swiped designs in the dust that had deposited itself thickly on the dashboard of my father’s car and watched the neighbor’s cat, Idaho, pass by. I mentally replayed the phone conversation I had with my mother while en route home from our trip. I called to tell her I’d be home in an hour or so but mostly wanted to know about their New Years eve. I knew it had been disappointing and sad, because the loss of my friend’s mother had terminated a thirty-five year old tradition held by our parents. They always went away together as a foursome for the New Years holiday. When they couldn’t arrange a trip, they shared dinner and a movie. This tradition survived several heart surgeries, major illnesses and family disasters but was now unbearable for my friend’s father. My parents were left alone to mourn the loss of this special partnership and yearly ritual, while considering the insidious undertow that was in all probability going to pull them apart also.
They were sad, and I was worried and sad for them. When my mother answered the phone, said she and Dad had brought in the new year with Alton, their grandson, and that it was fun, but my mother sounded vulnerable, and her voice was melancholy. I was about to say something conciliatory when she added enigmatically, “Well, I guess I can tell you now,” and then said nothing. Sitting in the cold garage, my skin grew icy just as it had that day, and I shivered. “Tell me what,” I had asked calmly.
My mother proceeded to tell me that my father had been “a little forgetful” during the past month or so. “Forgetful,” I almost shrieked and then tried to soften my voice, because there were kids in the car and I knew that screaming wouldn’t help. “Mom,” I continued, “he can’t string two words together. He’s aphasic. Do you understand what that means? Just how long has this been going on?” I don’t recall the exact dialogue that ensued but, at my emphatic urging, my father underwent an emergency MRI the very next day. Confirming my worst fears, it revealed a lesion the size of a large walnut in my father’s head, a primary brain tumor that would ultimately steal all his language abilities, that is if he lived long enough. The glioblastoma would send out shoots and runners like deadly crabgrass, but prior to ultimately killing him, he would be subjected first to the worst of all possible indignities. He would be isolated in his own private tower of Babel, devoid of all discernible receptive or expressive language skills. This man who readily made friends while on line to the bathroom, would be left completely and terribly alone.
I obsessively evaluated and reevaluated every possible course of action, though secretly hoped he wouldn’t live long enough to necessitate them. In the final analysis, all roads led straight to the grave. There was no recourse. Life and suffering could be prolonged by surgery, nothing more. Alone at home, I was wracked with the terrified sobs of disbelief and helpless rage. Unable to thwart life’s final insult to this good man of language, this storyteller and orator, I prayed that he would be spared further misery. I prayed for my own oblivion. Within ten days he was dead.
Sitting in my father’s car, I cried again, and my nose began to run sloppily like a child’s. And so in the end, there had been no more time to smooth the rough edges and emotional abrasions raised between us over the course of my lifetime as I had always hoped. During those last days, language would recede, leaving us both mutely trying to absolve each other of all the varied resentments and misunderstandings that unintentionally aggregate on the heart like barnacles. My brother arrived from New York, and we shared one last family weekend together.
How I longed for a final legacy that would tie up those loose ends, some biblical blessing or birthright to grant us both peace. I wanted to receive the archetypal patriarch’s message of wisdom for perpetuity. Please G-d, let there ensue some inspired clarity between us to lend order to this chaos of abbreviated life and loving, cut off so abruptly in mid-sentence. Of course, this didn’t happen, and we were left with our all too human selves. We would continue to struggle with our imperfect, needy longings and frustrations, our very evident love and bubbling anger. We reached out toward each other across the flowing river of evanescent mortality but were sorely restricted by our human framework and its sensory limitations. Perfect comprehension or attunement would remain where it must, in the realm of infantile fantasy, available to us only in broken fragments so eclipsed by the exigencies of life’s daily demands upon us that we question its actual existence.
Life is messy. We die in the middle of living, leaving behind an unfinished puzzle of what and who we were that must be deciphered and reconfigured by those left behind to mourn. Instead of perfect resolution and completion, I am left alone holding my end of all the partially unraveled ropes, ribbons and chains that bound me so intensely to my father. And so I stood at the foot of his bed, trying to rub warmth into his feet as he died, watching the monitor quantify the cessation of his bodily functions. I grieved as the tension between us finally slackened as he gently released his hold and moved onward. Though it will take years, it is now my job to untangle and reweave those fibers. I only hope my tapestry will be a testament to the vitality of a living relationship, uniquely beautiful even when its colors clash.
I picked up the remaining pieces of debris clinging to the floor of the car and watched the cat, Idaho, drop down onto the warm concrete for a nap. I worried about my future and sincerely doubted my ability to satisfactorily fulfill my own existential obligations. Holding the small scrap of paper on which my father had written something meaningful to someone else, I was unable to decide whether to drive home or remain immobilized in the garage. I silently repeated the message written on the scrap like a mantra. Be well. Do good things. Keep in touch.
As I did so, I stopped wondering about its origins. Sitting in the worn leather driver’s seat of my father’s car, I felt comfortingly surrounded by his essence and began to relax. I sank down deeper and soon felt as languid as Idaho, the cat, asleep on the driveway. I decided that, despite its original destination, the message was meant for me. It was my legacy if I wanted it.
I fall into a soft reverie, a kind of dream in which I find myself standing in a lovely predevelopment-era California landscape. I look around and see that I’m standing underneath a tall old tree beside an old stretch of Route 66. Nobody is traveling this stretch of highway. It’s empty, quiet and still. I see my father standing nearby. He is once again young and hopeful. Busy putting his bags and belongings into the back of a vintage car – the kind we had in the 50’s, though it looks new – he looks up at me and smiles. While not surprised to see me, he doesn’t stop what he’s doing but continues preparing for his trip. He knows I’m watching him but makes no attempt to say anything. I see that his hair is soft red again, and it shines brightly in the sun. I smile back and nod imperceptibly but don’t move. I understand that I’m here only to bear witness and so stand very still, lest my father disappear again. Be well, I silently say.
My father gets into the car and closes the door. Without looking back at me, he turns on the ignition, pulls away onto this two-lane highway and slowly begins to drive away. He’s in no hurry and appears to be taking his time. He has all the time in the world now. My heart lurches forward after him. I’m not sure where he’s going but know I can’t follow. I suppress a small cry that catches in my throat. I know if I call to him, he won’t answer, and I feel the inchoate longings of a tiny, lost child. The late afternoon sun moves downward in the sky and prepares to set in front of us. It glows warmly at the horizon where the road disappears into the hazy distance, a beckoning radiance.
Suddenly, I’m weightless and levitate off the ground like a butterfly. I rise to the height of the treetops, where my new vantage point allows me to see him better. He continues to drive at a relaxed, slow pace. I follow him with my eyes as he ventures on. Do good things. I watch him drive further and further away, his image growing more distant and faint. Daddy, where are you going? I want to see through his immortal eyes, but I don’t move. Held aloft by the warm air, I hang suspended above the tree’s swaying branches. Fluttering beneath my feet, new spring leaves wave good-bye. Holding my breath, I watch as he turns a bend in the road and disappears. The sun sets, leaving behind its bright pink wake. Keep in touch.
I close my eyes and hear Tom Waits singing the bluesy song that we played at his funeral. I hum along and find myself back in the front seat of his car. I feel a tiny bit less lonely knowing well that I’ll find that road again for myself someday. He’s just gone a little bit ahead. The cat, Idaho has disappeared. It’s late afternoon. I turn the ignition key of my new car and drive off toward home.
And so I keep the tiny scrap of paper on which were written three cryptic directives, a legacy from my father.