I wanted to tell him before he left, now I may never get the chance. The thought kept replaying itself in my mind. So the trip had been to say goodbye to Dad, now ninety years old, and no longer in good health. Since my exit from that hell-hole of a town he lived in, I had allowed time and distance to erode our relationship. Slowly, age took away our means of communication — aches and pains made Dad turn away from typing or writing, hearing loss made phone conversations repetitious shouting matches, my job and kids took all my available free time. Before I knew it, months turned into years, and years into decades. Suddenly I realized we hadn’t seen each other for twenty years, and that at age ninety, he didn’t have the luxury of another couple of decades.
But sitting there, in his living room, looking at the crinkled old face, worn down by a lifetime of decisions, I wasn’t sure what to do. Instead, I could only manage, “Happy birthday dad.”
He glanced up from his paper and flashed me a brief smile.
I stood up and turned to face the door. I had every intention of making my exit, but instead walked over and knelt in front of him. He laid the paper down, looking at me with curiosity. I stared into his wizened gray eyes. “Dad,” I said with some urgency, “I am saying goodbye. I do not ever intend to come back here, except, perhaps, to bury you.”
His expression blurred before my eyes, moving between surprise and consternation. After all, it had been my idea to come back, perhaps my statement had taken him off guard.
But instead, his hand touched my forearm as his gaze bore into me. “I understand,” he said without further explanation.
Tact was never a valued commodity in my family, nor was sincerity or nostalgia, so my response felt tepid and somewhat unnatural. “I love you dad. I just wanted you to know.”
A tear formed in the corner of his eye, “I understand,” he repeated with a small nod.
He sat quietly staring straight ahead, but when I moved to step away, he motioned for me to help him up. Slowly he rose off the sofa until we stood facing each other. What now? My mind spun in circles, but ultimately I pulled his bony shoulders to mine and hugged him.
He raised his hand to my face, “Take care of yourself.” The gentle admonishment washed over me as I let go. But as I turned, his hand caught my shoulder and I looked at him. His eyes stared into mine, as he gently squeezed my shoulder. Suddenly a smile crossed his features, “I’ve had a great life.” Slowly, he drifted back into his chair, the ghost of a smile still on his face.
Tears appeared in my eyes, as I tried to reply but could not. I turned away, and walked out the door. Looking skyward, the sun bathed my face in warmth. My heart thumped in my chest. Closing my eyes I whispered, “Goodbye dad.”