Sunday, June 4, 2017
This morning, early, I walked into our back yard. Not something I do much, or have ever done. First, I didn't used to get up early. In my fifties, that's changed, suddenly. Don't know why, it just did. I stopped being a night-owl. I go to bed earlier than I used to, around midnight most nights, and consequently I wake up earlier, usually around six or seven. Maybe it's the other way around; I wake up earlier so I go to bed earlier. Who knows? Doesn't matter. Anyway, awake around seven, I went out and listened to the birds.
Our back yard, by the way, isn't a yard. It's basically a walled patio with lots of flowers planted around it. No grass. When we bought the house, there was one plot of grass, just a strip, maybe ten feet by three, next to the garage. First thing I had done was to have that strip of grass pulled up and replaced with roses. I love flowers. I have no patience with grass. A promise I made myself as an adult was that I would never cut grass again and I never have. Mowing the lawn was always a chore and I never liked doing it. Mowing the grass was always my father's thing, never mine. He loved having a big yard. He loved mowing the grass. He had a hat just for that; a hideous, straw cowboy hat, sweat-stained and misshapen from being folded and shoved in his back-pocket, I suppose. Just for keeping the sun out of his eyes while he rode the mower. When he died, that hat was one of the things I threw away. Nobody was ever going to wear that hat again. I tried it on first. It was not a good look, on anybody. There were plenty of things my father left behind, things invested with memory and sentiment, plenty of hats come to that, but nobody was going to want the hat he wore for yard-work.
My brother gave me one of Dad's hats actually, before Dad died. It was just this past winter and I was back in Pennsylvania to help look after the old man in what proved to be his last illness, his last winter, his last everything. The hat my brother gave me is a good one. It's brown felt, Australian with a broad brim and a high crown with a thin, leather bolero for a band. All I had with me was a thin stocking-cap -- my Texas nephews call these "beanies" which nobody calls them in Pennsylvania. Nobody at the gas-station knew what the kid meant when he asked them if they sold "beanies." They didn't stock them anyway. I gave my nephew mine. My brother gave me Dad's hat. "Keep the snow of o' you anyway," and it did. "It's a pretty good hat," my brother told me, and it is, "should fit you," and it does. Men in my family, we all wear a big hat.
When we moved to Seattle, the husband and I, we went to a nice haberdashers downtown, a hat store that's been there forever. Classy. We bought porkpie hats, which we haven't now worn in years. That was the thing at the time, for that one brief moment in men's fashion, so we bought each other porkpie hats. I remember the woman who was fitting us. The beloved husband, possessing a normal, proportionately handsome head if I do say so, had no problem getting a good hat. Put it on his head, and done. With me, the woman had to keep stretching the damned thing. She kept putting it on my big head and then taking it into the back to steam and stretch the thing again and again. "You got a big, narrow head," she said finally, "that's unusual."
Seems that's a family trait, that big narrow head of ours.
It's spring now, so I've moved on to wearing a nice straw hat I bought at a different hat shop, gone now, but all winter in Pennsylvania while my father was dying and even after I got back to Seattle, I wore my Dad's hat that my brother gave me. We all went bald to one degree or another, my brother, myself and my late father, so a hat seems to be required for actual weather, snow or sunshine.
We buried my father with two hats, though both just in the coffin, not on. One was a Korean War veteran's cap he'd only recently taken to wearing. His time in the army was the least happy time in my father's life. He came quickly to dislike the military and he learned to hate war. The war before his took his beloved older brother from him. My Uncle Dick died in the Battle of the Bulge. My dad, his parents and his whole family never really got over that loss. Every year, on the anniversary of Dick's death, and every Memorial Day, for the rest of his life my father could hardly see the day out soon enough. Never wanted to talk about it. He just went about the business of putting flowers on the family graves and a fresh flag on his brother's grave, and then waited for the day to end. This year my brother, his wife and my mother did the flowers and the flags together: our grandparents and theirs, aunts and uncles, all my parent's siblings, and now my Dad's.
We were a little surprised then when my father took to wearing those veterans' caps. He usually wore a billed cap, the kind with the adjustable snap at the back to accommodate his big, narrow head. More usually these were hats he got for free from car dealerships or farm-equipment concerns. He bought some too with clever quips on the crown. He was given others, mostly camouflage patterns for hunting. He had hundreds of such hats. We found boxes full when he died. Man had a lot of hats. Only in the last year or two did he adopt the veterans' hats, and the Korean veterans hat in particular. He wore that whenever he went out to dinner now, which was once a week for years; every Friday. People frequently thanked him for his service when they saw it. Amazingly it seems he liked that after all.
Thirty-five years ago my mother announced one Friday that it was her "day off." She never really took a day off. She worked when I was young, cleaned other people's houses as well as ours, cleaned college dorm-rooms. We needed the money, so she worked. It was more unusual then, still. Or rather, it was meant to be. Second wave feminism -- still called "Women's Lib" -- was happening around then. Middle-class white women decided they were not going to be bound by traditional gender-roles. Many wanted to work away from the home. It was a revolution. For poor women? Maybe not so much. My mother worked. My grandmothers worked. My father's mother worked the desk of a motel when she became a widow at a relatively young age. More a matter of necessity than choice. My mother, before her marriage, worked in a dry-cleaners, and at a local coffee-roasting plant, and in a jewelry store. Later, as I say, she cleaned for other people. One day she announced that Friday was her day off and told my father he was taking her out to dinner. I went along. We had the fish special at the restaurant in the basement of Sears, I think it was. My father took her out to dinner faithfully every Friday there after for decades. "He didn't kick," my mother used to say, with a lingering note of pleasure and surprise.
When I went outside this morning to listen to the birds I watched two of them run races along our garden wall. No idea what they were. Little wrens with long, comical legs, I think they were. For whatever reason they just chased each other around the wall. Made me smile. My father would have known just what they were. He would have known by their songs as well every bird we have out here, at least he would have if they were like the birds he knew back home in Pennsylvania. He would have known the names of the trees as well, and the plants down to the weeds. He understood the world so long as there was earth under his feet.
Looking through boxes of old photographs after my father died it was clear that the old man spent most of his childhood outdoors. He and his brothers rode and raced horses and ponies. They rode and they hunted and they kept dogs. Until he was in his late seventies he kept dogs. He kept dogs until he and they were too old to hunt. When the last old beagle went off and never came back, he stopped. "I'm too old to chase her," he said, "and she was too old to be bothered coming back, I guess."
As an adult he worked in car dealerships and factories and was indoors most days, but only when he couldn't be out. He preferred being outdoors all his life. Even when he got too old to hunt, he'd sit on the porch, mow the grass, plant things he'd never live to see grow. He planted most of the trees on the property. Some of those trees are taller than the house now, some of them taller yet. His general theory of gardening was to stick things in the ground and if they grew, great, and if not, why, you plant another. He was an unsentimental gardener.
He loved the spring, my father, as do I. Who doesn't, come to that? but for him it always meant he could be out in it again; bad knees, a bad heart, bad feet, none of that much mattered once the cold was over. When spring came again and there was a sunny day it meant he could take the little red convertible out of the garage again and take his wife for a drive. It's a generational thing, that business of just driving for pleasure. He loved cars all his life too, and he loved that little red car, the nicest car he'd ever owned, specially. No one else ever drove that car. The weather got warm enough and the sky clear enough and he'd take that car out and wash it and shine it and my mother knew that meant he meant to go for a drive. They'd tool around the country roads they both knew like the geography of their own history and they'd look at "the nice houses" and the "good yards" with lots of new flowers and they'd stop for lunch somewhere they'd eaten for twenty years and they would make a day of it. He might drive the little red car when they went out to dinner on my mother's day off, but going for a drive was different. The point of going for a drive was the going, not the getting to. He loved the freedom of that.
I didn't even learn to drive until I was thirty-five. Cars were another thing, like hunting and dogs and working outside that my father and I didn't really share. I'm an indoor man. I'm for an armchair and book and eating dinner while we watch TV. My father and I did not have much in common then, save for the shape of our skulls. More than this would make it seem, but less than than either of us might have wished, if I'm being honest. We were never really easy with one another, not the way he was with my older brother. When my father retired and a bit later when my brother moved into the old house across the yard from my parents, my brother and my father became true friends. Never an entirely easy relationship for most people I should think, father and son, but they made it work. Saw each other pretty much everyday. Later still when first one then the other became ill, they grew specially close. It's my brother who stayed. It's my brother who takes care. He was far more of a hell-raiser than our father ever dreamed of being and for quite a time they had, if anything, even less in common in some ways than I had with either of them. But they always had a common, male language to do with all those things they both loved and understood: dogs, and engines, and hard work. My brother spent twenty some years in the same factory my father retired from. I was gone before any of this, first to Pittsburgh, and then California and finally to Seattle. I missed a great deal, but then my father did too.
My father went into the hospital at the end of last year and my sister came home from Texas to help and then I did too. Baudelaire says, "This life is a hospital where every patient is possessed with the desire to change beds; one man would like to suffer in front of the stove, and another believes that he would recover his health beside a window." When they told my father he had liver cancer and would die soon, all he wanted was to be home. The window wasn't enough. They brought him home, my brother and sister. I came back.
When poor people "go into hospice" that means something different than it does when middl-class people do. Poor people come home. The family rents a hospital bed, an oxygen tank, order diapers from the service. The nurses come every couple of days. We changed my father's bedding. We washed him and fed him and sat with him and gave him his medication every four hours. My mother slept in the spare room. We slept on couches and a rollaway bed in the laundry-room. When we could still lift him and he could still stand, it was my sister and my sister-in-law, me and my brother and my brother-in-law and my nephews who lifted my father in and out of bed. When his feet would no longer stay under him and we couldn't move him to a chair anymore, it was my brother-in-law who lifted my father, who was not a slight man, to the end of the bed to sit up for a spell.
Towards the end that was the one thing he wanted, my father, to get up and get out of that wretched bed. It was hard to tell him that he couldn't, that he wouldn't anymore, ever again. He did not understand and then, I think he sadly did. That was hard. The nurses explained this clinically but compassionately to us all; how the body rebels at the end, how the mind's last hurrah is often expressed in this urge to be up, to be out, to be upright. All perfectly reasonable and true, I'm sure. I can be forgiven I think for reading more into the gesture than that. What my father or some part of my father that still was my father wanted was, I think, to be out. More than anything for a man like my father to be outside was to be alive. To never go outside again meant the end, and so it was, and it was hard. My father's death was not easy, and as my mother said, it was not fair. "Why should anyone have to suffer that way?" she said. No answer to be had. She was right. It wasn't.
I think now I might have made that moment a little better had I had the sense to hand the man his hat. Maybe if he'd had that in his hand if not on his big, narrow head, he might have felt some comfort in at least the potential of a departure back out into something better than that bed, that room, his fate. That hat was a comfort to me every day I was home, every night when I got up to smoke a cigarette on the porch. Kept the winter off me head. Kept my father close whenever I could leave his room for a bit. He might have liked to have that hat for a minute again himself. I wish I'd thought of this at the time. It probably would only have just further confused him and the whole hideous business of his dying more, but maybe he might have had another moment of, if not hope, then expectancy at least. But I didn't think of it until this morning, when I walked outside and heard the birds I don't know the names of, and felt the sun come over the garden wall through the trees I can't name.
And then I came back inside, and put on my father's hat for no good reason, and I wrote this.
You're missing the spring this year, old man, and I am missing you, more than either of us might once, long ago, have thought possible. Glad we had the chance to make some of that up. Glad to have the hat.