I called my father the other morning for his 80th birthday. He was naturally happy to hear from me, but he announced that he would never “see” me again.
Though he always talks flippantly about health decline and being shocked (and disappointed) to have lived this long, this time, in his own literal way, he was serious: After a steady decline in his eyesight and a final unsuccessful maneuver to restore it, he’s nearly blind now. Can’t see the numbers on the phonepad, can’t read.
“So even if you visit me, I will not see you,” he said, with no spoken emphasis on the word “see” to convey his wordplay — I’m certain he takes delight in speaking this way. (Shit, is this where I got the dry side of my own sense of humor? Reflect…)
He generally opens conversations with such cheerful news like that. It’s partly a Czech thing but mostly a him thing: How are you doing, Dad? “Horrible. But not as awful as last week” is par for any call.
We spent most of our half-hour conversation discussing his taxes (which I didn’t handle, until this call) and my taking over the delivery of birthday checks — both management moves necessitated by his vanished vision. He apologized, as always, for talking business on my international dime, but I told him for his birthday he could talk about whatever he wants.
(Of course, he did manage to get his usual dig in about how I am “so far behind” my brother in the offspring race that I “may never catch up.” I’m sure he’d prefer his favorite child lead that “race” — particularly if I produced male family name-carriers.)
It always strikes me as odd that a guy living abroad who can no longer travel (nor see, now), and who has for several years talked of dying any week now, would be so concerned with his minimal U.S. taxes and renewing his AAA membership. When it was his driver’s license, and even AAA, I figured it was more psycho-sentimental: the clinging on to the symbols of one’s independence such as the implied ability to drive.
But taxes? Practically speaking, I suppose he could worry about outstanding tax/IRS claims on his estate after he’s gone, but I know it’s not that. I think it’s the comfort of normalcy represented by life’s routines.
And thus he has my deepest sympathies. He has always been a creature of routine (no breakfast, “a soup” for lunch, Perry Mason afternoon if home, nap after work, up till 2 or 3 a.m., highlight the TV Guide with different colors for “must see,” “nice to see,” and “have on if around,” crossword puzzle and a cigarette while sitting on the throne.) Of routine to such a degree that I suspect it helped cope with an overactive mind, or mild OCD, or perhaps a way of instilling certainty on a life whose first 15 years consisted of the tragic uncertainty of invasion, an assassinated father, war, “liberation” and Soviet occupation.
But for someone who loves to read, write, drive and travel, to be immobile at home without vision but fully cognizant must be rough. The comfort of so many routines now lost, replaced by dependence he hoped he’d never live to see. At least there’s still jazz music.
Nonetheless, he sounded in good spirits. Possibly because he was hearing from his newly nominated tax handler, so that eased one of his nagging worries, but still. He’s surrounded by good people — an old couple and a cousin who, truth be told, aren’t in much better shape than he. But he couldn’t survive under recent circumstances without them. And they sound happy to have him and help him. Their voices on the phone as I completely misunderstand their Czech words betrayed their happiness at hearing from me.
It’s those tones in their voices — they take me back to being there, much younger, as they talked about me in Czech to my father in reverential words for the nice boy, your son. The aunt has the voice of a big jovial babushka whose laughter is infectious and instantly brings a smile to my face. Her husband has the much-lower drone of a guy who’s done hard labor all his life — permanent V-shaped chest tan and all — but who nonetheless keeps a great hold on Czech humor’s great appreciation of the absurd.
Both of them speak to me as if I understand, when I don’t. But always there is some sense of communication achieved. Those tones. They resonate. Hearing them reinforces my sense of beauty in life’s simple things. Sowing community in simple gestures, smiles, body language. Suddenly I can see how foreign cultures — sometimes, anyway — could initially interact positively with one another despite lacking a common language with which to speak. The common thread of humanity can be very powerful, before we start fighting over the resources.
Perhaps it’s their loving vibes that have helped keep my father in good spirits despite the loss of life’s normal comfort routines.
It’s been 11+ years now since I first said goodbye to him at the airport when he moved back to his original home. I wept with therapeutic abandon that first time, because it represented such a monumental transition from an old way to however this story would end. From a block or a phone call away as a child, to an ocean and several time zones of separation as a young adult. It’s not like I saw him often by that point, anyway: My sister’s need for free rent had long since bumped my belongings out of his spare bedroom, and I was chasing adventures and delightful mistakes in college, anyway.
It was more what the transition represented — all of life’s earlier memories with him wrapped up, while an uncertain future lay ahead where I might see him once a year or, perhaps very soon, not at all. Emotions and sentiments tidily packaged in a moment like the sappy end of a chick flick. Haven’t managed to cry at any of our partings since: as if that transition was already crossed and could shed no more tears.
Since then, the health issues (and calls focused on them) have steadily piled up, the visits evermore sporadic. But he’s still forging along, creating new routines, getting by somehow. … And still doing his taxes.