When I was growing up, whatever Dad said was gospel. Luckily, he didn't say much. First off, he wasn't home a lot. After his day of work at General Electric, he went straight to graduate classes at the University of Santa Clara for 18 years. On weekends, everyone had to be quiet because Dad was studying in his "library." Occasionally, he'd invite me in and I'd sit on a chair near him, but not talking. I spent hours memorizing the titles and authors on the spines of all his books. I could hear kids playing and yelling outside, but sometimes I preferred staying inside, in silence, if that meant I could spend time with my dad.
I hope I'm wrong, but I never saw him throw a ball to my brothers or spend time with them just hanging out. Wait, he did take them fishing if they'd get up at 5:00am to do so, and he participated in numerous Boy Scout outings. He took us camping or backpacking almost every summer, and one time he stuffed both my brothers into his smelly old army fatigues and laughed as they ran around our front yard like a two-headed green monster with four arms and four legs. So there you have it, he was a good enough dad and I loved him to pieces.
Being an only child, Dad did not have to share toys or time with younger siblings. He talked about his grama, Minnie, more than he spoke of his own parents. His grampa, John, was a disabled, ex-fireman-turned-carpenter after he was swung off the back of a speeding firetruck racing to a false alarm and got his leg mangled. John built a home for his family, off Aver's Avenue in Chicago, which he promptly converted to three apartments during the depression. A policeman who loved to tell stories rented out the top floor which was exciting for my dad who was a small child during the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. I believe my dad's cousin Dorothy and her family lived there too. So maybe he did have kids to play with, but, whatever the circumstances of his youth, as an adult, my father never seemed comfortable in social situations that required small talk.
He was a beautiful man. Even with the tormented look he favors in most pictures, he was strikingly handsome. I like thinking my mother fell in love with him instantly, but she was a talker, so I don't know what happened when he opened his mouth. Mom orchestrated the social life they shared for 56 years, and I do remember them coming home late from various parties arguing over Dad's tendency to escape social conversation and wind up reading a book in the host family's den.
Dad had definite opinions, was very conservative, and could make you feel kind of stupid if you wavered in your thinking whilst debating politics. With a couple cocktails in him, he laughed a lot, told jokes and seemed lively, but I just don't think he drank enough when we were little. When Mom died five years ago, Dad's social life went to zero. Only one neighbor stopped by the house regularly to talk to him. The good Christian people from St. Mary's Episcopal Church, even the priest himself, were no shows.
All the people my parents did favors for - watering plants, taking in mail, feeding their pets, preparing delicious dinners for widows and widowers, running errands, driving folks to doctor appointments and chemotherapy sessions, inviting them to plays and operas with extra tickets - all their so-called-friends became invisible. I wonder if the chore of pulling conversation out of my dad, without Mom there, was just too monumental for people to make the effort. Dad may not have noticed, he had mild to moderate AD back then, but it hurt me deeply. I quit sending checks to St. Mary's.
Nowadays, Dad speaks even less and doesn't make much sense. Hospice calls it Word Salad. When I arrive for a visit I always ask How are you? Eventually, that gets an okay after he fakes he can't hear me a few times to avoid a conversation. I cringe when I hear What did you do today? come out of my stupid mouth. I just can't think of anything else to ask, and that's when I get bibbed-lettuce and diced vegetables. He senses the conversation is getting more serious, clears his throat and starts to wiggle around in his wheelchair as his salad shooter of a brain engages. He hems and haws and reads words off the diploma that hangs on his wall, so always Santa Clara is in his response. If he's facing his framed-shadowboxes of WWII medals at the time, soldier or airplane makes the toss. He sometimes points at me, then notices his hand which fascinates him. The same hand that once could coddle an egg and make a Caesar dressing table side.
In the dining room, he listens as I talk to the other, more verbal, residents. They make salads too, though meatier, chef salads. I take my dad's hand and hold it for the rest of our visit, even while he eats. At this point, there's no more meaningful communication than that. We just hang out quietly together. Luckily, we've had lots of practice.