My dad snuck in, like a ghost on the breeze blowing through the open kitchen windows. Snuck in, quiet as a ghost, opening the back door without a sound as I loaded spices into a hot saute pan filled with olive oil.
"Hey," he said, and I jumped a mile.
"Shit, man. You scared the shit outta me."
Sheila had gone to pick up Sophie, Riley, and Evie from the sitter. Bailey had gone over to a friend's house for awhile. I don't get alone very often, but when I do, I get all the way alone.
He took a look at my pint glass, and then at the saute pan.
"Red Hook. Long Hammer IPA. You want one?"
"Nah. Not a whole one. Mind if I grab a few sips of yours?"
He poured maybe half a pint's worth into a coffee mug.
That always cracked me up about my father. I always drank wine out of a wine glass, beer out of a pint glass, but my Dad could drink anything out of any glass, or cup, even a styrofoam coffee cup. He's not fussy. Never was. My mom always said that held him back. Said after the childhood he had, he was satisfied with anything.
His surgery looms, two days away now. Cancer: treatable and curable, he keeps saying. We'll see. He's quiet these days. You can see the fear on his face, and it's a little disconcerting. He's not himself. He slips in through our back doors, and where he once would have a glass of wine or three and pontificate on history, politics, or sports, he now half-heartedly utters a sentence or two of small talk, refuses drink offers, and heads on home after a barely audible "see ya tomorrow."
Like many men of his generation, he could be stingy with praise for his sons, but he came through for me in the clutch, as they say. When my first wife died he and my mother would come over and eat dinner with me about every night; my mother used to say she couldn't stand the the thought of me eating alone.
One night, must be five years ago now, after dinner on a Saturday night, my then-three year old daughter was acting up something fierce, and I wound up putting her straight to bed without singing our bedtime songs. I felt lousy about it afterwards, and I came into the living room, sat down on the love seat in the living room, with my parents sitting on the couch across the room from me, and I broke down. Overwhelmed with raising three kids alone, feeling lost and lonely and hopeless, and my Dad put his arm around me and said, "I'm proud of you. Let me tell you, you're doing a hell of a lot better with this than I would have."
Mother's Day came in sunny, breezy, and a little cold. A little past noon, after Riley and Evie had given out the cards and presents, Sheila said she wanted to go for a run. She works hard at staying in shape, it's important to her. Of course, I said. We'd already decided to go out for dinner later that afternoon. Go, I said.
"Maybe when I'm out you can take them up to the cemetery," she said.
I'd thought about going up there, in fact, I knew I had to; I thought to myself, if you were lying six feet under, wouldn't you want these kids to stop up to visit your grave on Father's Day?
But part of me didn't want to go. I had been in a good morning all morning and into the afternoon. I knew going up there might bring me down; I go up often enough, I walk or ride a spin bike most days, trying to stay in shape myself, and since the cemetery sits on the top of a nice solid run of hills, I often incorporate it into my route.
But going up there on Mother's Day with the kids, well, that's a different story. I knew it might bring me down. And I knew if it brought me down it would bring Sheila down, and maybe even ruin her day.
She changed into her running outfit, did some stretching, and headed out the back door.
"Take them up there," she said.
And so I did.
I got all four of them into the car, told them where we were going.
We drove on up. After a cloud-filled morning, the day had broken wide-open, sunny, but cool and windy.
We parked and got on out and made our way over to the graveside.
Instead of the usual stone, I had a stone bench put in, light red stone, it matched the color of Lauren's hair. I sat down on the bench while her three children walked around. The fourth child there, twenty months old, the child Sheila and I had brought into the world, ran around, laughing and shouting, her pigtails bouncing on either side of her head. Bailey, Evie, and Sophie are crazy about her; I don't think they can imagine a world without her. Neither can I.
I had a few words carved onto the seat of the bench.
Riley, now six and in kindergarten, has learned how to read.
He ran his fingers over the words on the right side of the bench.
"Loving mother of Bailey, Evie, and Riley," he read, slowly.
"Hey Dad! That says Riley! That's me!"
I studiously tried to avoid letting any of them know I was on the verge of tears.
"What's the other words?" he asked.
I stood up. He traced those words as well, struggled to read them.
"What's that say?"
"Sweet Soul Dream. July 23, 1994."
"What's that mean?"
"That was the name of our wedding song. That was the day we got married."
Sophie kept running around, Riley went to join Evie in chasing her. Bailey came and sat down on the bench next to me. Fourteen and a half now, and he's already six feet one tall. I wished Lauren could see him now. I wondered if she could. I imagined her somehow seeing the five of us there.
Evie asked if it was time to go. I said yes, though I didn't get up off the bench.
Bailey got up and ran down Sophie and put her in the car. Evie and Riley followed him. I sat on the bench, letting the tears run down my cheeks.
A minute or so went by. Certain I was alone, I let a few sobs out.
Bailey then came over, looked at my face, and went back the car.
A few seconds later, Evie and Riley came over. I looked up and saw them staring into my face.
"Bailey said you were crying," Riley said.
"Yeah," I said.
I wiped my face.
"C'mon." I said. "Let's go."
I stood up and walked over to the van, and got on in. Sophie was singing in her car seat. Evie and Riley talked about getting back home in time to catch the ice cream man.
"Dad?" Bailey asked.
"You know I'm still mad you wouldn't let me see Mom in the hospital."
"I know. It's okay you're mad. You can be mad."
"Well I am. I never got to see her."
"I don't think she would have wanted you to see her like that." I don't think she would have. She looked a mess. Her hair shaved off, her face swollen, hooked up to machines, in a coma. I still think I did the right thing.
"I'll never forgive you, you know," he said.
"I know. Some day you might have a kid of your own and you might understand, but maybe not. It's okay."
"Why didn't you let me see her?"
"You were eight years old. Grown-ups who just knew her were crushed when they saw her. I didn't think you should see her like that."
"Well you should have."
"It's easy for you to say that 'cause you didn't actually see her like that, but it's okay. You might understand some day."
Actually, I pray that he doesn't. I pray he doesn't have to go through that, that he doesn't have to make that choice. I'd rather him be mad at me the rest of my life than go through that.
My Dad slipped in silently again tonight.
Bailey was at my sister's house for the night. Sheila was out with an old friend, for the first time in a while. Sophie played in the living room with Evie and Riley. I was in the kitchen, drinking a beer, carmelizing some onions, and waiting for the horses to get in the gate for the Preakness.
"Don't get too close to Sophie," I warned. "I think she's got a bug. Threw up again last night, two nights in a row."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, don't wanna get too close to her. You know I'm supposed to shower with this special antibiotic soap the next coupla days. Keep the infections out."
I expect him to depart immediately, but for the hell of it, I offer him a drink.
"Well, guess if she's in there I could sneak in a quick glass of wine."
I poured him a big glass of white.
Less than forty-eight hours to go.
I wanted to give him a hug and tell him I love him and thank him for everything, just in case. He should be fine, but it is surgery, and it is cancer. Lauren went in to have benign tumor out, they said she'd be home in five to seven days, but she came out twenty-eight days later, in a coffin.
I thought of how times have changed; Bailey is fourteen and a half years old and he thinks he's a big grown-up dude now, but every night around ten-thirty, we hug each other goodnight and say, "Love ya." I think of this, of how my Dad and I never, ever did that when I was growing up, ever, and I try to remember the last time we may have said that, or something like that, to each other, and I realize, I just don't know.
I should get around to that, tomorrow. Treatable and curable, he keeps saying. Who knows. I sure as hell hope he's right.