Numbering our Days

So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.
Psalm 90:12

The bearded man speaking on the cell phone at the airport looked familiar to me. I was returning from Washington where I had attended my 100-year old Uncle’s memorial service.

“Polly will be there,” I heard him say as our paths converged, and then knew that it had to be Steve. I’d gone to high school with Polly and Steve, though I’d only seen them once, eight years earlier, in the more than forty years since we graduated. They had come to the memorial service for our high school English teacher I had organized. I knew he lived in Washington, she in Oregon.

He hung up the phone and I tapped him lightly on the arm. As we made our way through the airport I learned that his father had been injured in a tractor accident. It was serious. His father, who had been a physician, had become a vintner late in life.

We parted ways as he left to find his ride.

Livermore was a smallish town back when we were in high school. And ours was the new high school. It started with just freshman and sophomores. Steve, Polly and I were among the first students. But even though it was a small high school, we gathered in groups, pretty much hanging out with whoever was our designated group. I liked them both and knew them enough to wonder about them over the years, but not well enough to have a way to keep in touch.

Their father died in November, the day before Thanksgiving. The memorial was last Saturday.

This has become a familiar experience for me, acknowledging the loss of my contemporaries’ parents, a life passage. It brings with it a mixture of past and present. The buried memories of who I thought I was and who I thought they were back then meeting the reality of who we had become and the life paths that brought us to where we were today.

The grey rainy skies that had been the previous week gave way to one of those weird late Fall California days on Saturday: bright-blue skies, the sun casting its warmth over leaves still clinging to the trees and the vines in the vineyard.

As I listened to the generations read their tributes to Father and Grandfather, the yellow leaves of the tree by the porch drifted down. Sometimes it was a lone leaf weaving its way through the air, other times a flock of them descended to become a part of the autumnal tapestry gracing the ground.

Be a renaissance person, the grandchildren remembered their grandfather telling them. Both generations drew from Shakespeare and Emerson and Dylan Thomas in their eulogies, though they had written them independently of each other.

As the day drew to a close, the sun set behind the vineyard, turning the surrounding trees into silhouettes against the darkened sky, its warmth turning to that bright sunset red you see at the edge of the world the moment before it disappears.

But this time, it lingered. Or so it seemed. I don’t remember a sunset lasting as long as this one did, a waning ember that glowed in the dark.

It’s not so much that time stopped as it slowed down so we could acknowledge its passing, as if to let us know that though our days are numbered, they are enough — if we live them deeply and follow the beat of our own hearts.

“My head keeps hitting the ceiling,” Polly said as we talked about what it’s like to lose a parent. It’s true. There is nothing between you and the ceiling as the generations above you die.

Be a renaissance person.

That command came from many sources in the years Polly and Steve and I were in high school. Our teachers encouraged it. The high spirits and optimism of the sixties encouraged it.

I think it is a command we need to bring to the forefront of our culture. I think it is the way we can find our way again in a world that has been turned upside down by fear, greed, and solipsism.

We don’t quote stock prices at significant life passages. We quote the likes of Shakespeare and Emerson and Dylan Thomas because they express what it is to be human — enduring truths that don’t vanish in the burst of a bubble.

When the Dance Becomes Graceful

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.

Mary Ann.