When we were sixteen, Mary Ann and I went out on a date with our fathers.
I don’t remember what the occasion was, or what inspired the date. We lived on the same block, a short street that curved into another, but our fathers weren’t fast friends.
It was a midweek evening. They dressed up in suits, not their work attire (my dad was an electrician, hers supervised maintenance crews for our town), and took us to the Rock House, the fancy dining place in our small Bay Area suburb.
I had recently gotten my driver’s license, so while our fathers lingered over after dinner drinks, Mary Ann and I took off in my family’s 1960 turquoise Ford station wagon.
Radio tuned to KYA, we tasted a nascent luxurious moment of freedom as we crossed Chestnut Street and bounced over the railroad tracks. The moment screeched to a halt with a loud, ominous crashing sound.
We hadn’t been hit. There was no other car in sight so there had been no accident. I maneuvered the car to the curb and looked in the rear view mirror. There, just past the railroad tracks, was a muffler.
I think Mary Ann and I had a brief discussion about whether or not that was my muffler. I know we didn’t get out and pick up the muffler. I’m sure that the sound of the car as we drove home verified that it was the muffler of my family car lying on P Street.
I’m sure I told my dad. I don’t remember his reaction, though I doubt he was angry with me. I’m sure the car sounded a bit like an airplane as we drove home.
But it was the muffler-falling-off-the-car incident that came to mind on Monday when Mary Ann called to tell me her father, Mike, had died two hours earlier. It was not unexpected, he had been in a nursing home for eight years, he was in his late eighties, and hospice had been called in a few weeks before. But, as Mary Ann said, whatever expected means, that’s not how it feels when Death arrives.
There is a special place in your heart that gets touched when your friend’s parent dies – especially if you knew the person when you were a kid and he or she was the parent with all the collateral authority.
The last time I saw him was when I visited Mary Ann in the middle of September. She had received a phone call early that morning from the nursing home, letting her know that he had fallen, but seemed to be uninjured. We stopped by to check in on him.
He was in a four-person room. One bed was empty, the occupants of the other two were sleeping. Mike’s bed was hidden behind the curtains drawn to provide him privacy. He wasn’t very social. His cave protected him from his surroundings.
I hadn’t seen Mike for probably fourteen years. He lay on his bed, curled up, his back to us, his body as lean as I remember it. “Mary Ann,” he called loudly as she bent over to kiss him on his cheek.
Mary Ann. As long as I could remember, her family, even her parents, referred to her as Sis or Sissy. She had two younger brothers, but really, I think everyone thought of her as their big sister.
Her father in particular used to piss me off. He insisted that his wife shouldn’t work, but from the time she was twelve, Mary Ann worked, contributing her income to the household budget. One Friday afternoon in high school, Mary Ann learned that she wouldn’t be going to the movies with us because her father had accepted a babysitting job for her. He knew that she would use the money she made on Friday night to take her brothers to the movies on Saturday, giving him the afternoon free to be with her mother.
After Mary Ann’s husband died, Mike wondered aloud what they were going to do with her, as if she had ever been their burden.
I wanted to strangle him on Mary Ann’s behalf, to slap him silly, over the years.
But as I saw him lying on the bed, calling her name, I understood that the two had found a place of grace between them.
I have a picture in my mind of our fathers at the table the night of our date. My dad was raised on a farm; Mary Ann’s was the child of Eastern European immigrants. Both had served in World War II.
There was something rather dashing about them dressed in their suits, the slight scent of Old Spice on their clean-shaven faces. These were men who would know what to do with the muffler lying on P Street.
My father died in 1994 from complications of Alzheimer’s. He’d been in a nursing home for two years, had spent the previous ten years slowly being swallowed by the disease.
Mary Ann was at his memorial, and at my mother’s twelve years later.
It’s not that parents become like children when they begin to decline and need our care. It’s just that the balance changes. It’s a dance that has no choreography, and is different for every set of parent and child. Who leads and who follows is always in flux: Sometimes both lead. Other times both follow. Then there are moments when both surrender to love and the dance becomes graceful.
Maybe that’s what touches the heart when a friend’s parent dies, seeing that it can become more graceful over time.
He called her name. Mary Ann. Not Sis. Not Sissy.