Sunday, October 30, 2011

Ways Not Taken [DRAFT]

The cliche would have been to say that my father could not have called at a worse time. In point of fact, it was a morning like many others at the office, and in that ten o'clock hour at which Moltke's adage that no plan ever survives contact with the enemy is so often borne out. The sound of the phone, vibrating, brought my eye to it, and I saw my father's number, but let it pass. Five minutes later, I saw my sister Emily's number and treated it likewise. A moment later the inevitable text appeared: "Answer your damn phone. Dad has a scheduling question for you." Emily is not one to abandon capitalization and punctuation, even in the medium of the text message.

Scheduling was the key word here. When the three of us had sat down to plan how to convince Dad to surrender his drivers license, I had agreed, at Emily and Sue's insistence, to be Dad's transportation when the Senior Shuttle couldn't fill his needs. Both married and working, with two children each, they insisted that they already had more shuttle duties than they could handle. And it was strongly hinted that, having only just returned after six years working in the Bay Area, I was far behind in my filial duties -- in addition to possessing that superfluity of time which those who have families are always convinced those who do not enjoy.

I went to get a second cup of coffee from the break room and then called.

"Hey, Dad, sorry to miss your call. I was in a meeting."

"What kind of meeting ends a quarter past the hour?" Whether it was an aspect of the growing Alzheimer's or simple resentment at finding himself, after so many years, in a dependent position, my father's instinct for slights and deceptions had sharpened to a razor edge over the last year, and his willingness to bluntly accuse had developed along with it.

"My nine o'clock ran over."

This was plausible in the extreme, but something in my voice must have betrayed the additional lie told to cover the reflexive one. He harrumphed at me and silence drew out for an uncomfortable moment.

"What is it, Dad? Emily said you had a scheduling question."

"I need you to take me somewhere tomorrow at two." He spoke with an abruptness that defied contradiction.

"Okay." I drew the second syllable out, a deflection rather than a rejection. "What sort of appointment is this? Can you take--"

"A funeral. Downtown. Two P.M. Pick me up by one thirty. And wear a suit. None of your 'office casual'." He barked the clipped sentences out as if, once again, he was instructing my high school self what time to have the Chevy home and what sorts of destinations were strictly off limits.

There was no arguing it. "Alright, Dad. I'll get the afternoon off somehow. I'll be at your place by a quarter after one. We could get some early dinner afterwards if you want. Did you have dinner plans?"

"No. No plans..." His bark was gone now. Either he had not expected agreement so quickly or he had used all his energy in the initial request. "We'll see." A pause. Before I could think of a way to ease the conversation towards a close he did so himself abruptly. "Don't be late. Goodbye." He hung up.

I looked at the phone in my hand for a moment, experiencing the moment of readjustment which takes place when one has finished a phone conversation of some intensity. Then I tossed the phone onto a stack of papers on my desk and got up.

I found Mark in his office. He was hunched forward in his chair, design mark-up on one monitor, code window on another. He waved me towards his spare chair with an abstracted, "One minute..."

His desk was in its usual state of chaos. I favor two piles -- the small one urgent, the tall one the slow, sedimentary build-up of the non-urgent. Mark's desk tends to be a single, even, sea of papers, with framed family photographs rising above the chaos like mountains ringed around a gently rolling plain. Ask him for some piece of information and there is a pause in which, hands poised, he turns his head one way and then another, scanning the array. Then a hand darts out with surety and grabs the precise sheaf that he is looking for, drawing it out from under the mess. This state of ordered messiness seemed to fit with the rest of his life, from the slightly rumpled shirt and Dockers he favored to the pictures of four, young, rumple-haired children that ornamented his desk. When asked if he and his wife planned more, he tended to spread his hands and say, "You can never tell." Whether he was genuinely unsure or simply enjoyed the shocked response this often elicited I could never tell.

"So. What's up?" Mark asked, turning away from his computer and leaning back in his chair, coffee cup in hand.

"I'm going to have to be out tomorrow afternoon. Take my dad to a funeral. Can you cover for me at the cross functional meeting? Email any actions for me?"

"Sure. Sure. No problem." He leaned forward with a concern that bordered on the theatrical. "Can I ask... Someone close?"

I shrugged. "Someone my father knows. He didn't give the name."

"Well. I'm sorry." I saw his gaze flick over, for a moment, towards the worn bible which always rested under his lunch container, at one corner of his desk. "I'll keep your father and his friend in prayer."

"Thanks." I got up, started out, and stopped, leaning on the doorframe. "Let me know if there's anything for me out of that meeting. Heard anything from Creative yet?"

He shook his head dismissively. "Probably not till right before. You know how it is."

I'd half expected, arriving at my father's house shortly after one that next day, to find that he'd forgotten about his plans entirely, and thus I arrived early enough to help him dress quickly if necessary. He was ready, however: wearing a bulkily knotted tie and dark grey suit, and dithering around the house as if checking that everything was in its place. When I was young he used, when nervous or frustrated, to go around the house compulsively cleaning: putting away a few books left out, moving a stray dish to the sink, sweeping odd corners. The house he had bought to spend his retirement in was small -- bought after the divorce and intended to fit only one person -- and with no one else about and a cleaning service that came twice a week, there was no mess to clean. But the habit remained.

He grabbed his stack -- a hold-over from his work days, a stack of loosely organized documents, notes and reading material he carried with him whenever he left the house -- and we went out to my car.

"Do you have the address we're going to?"

He pulled a newspaper clipping out of the stack. "St. Luke's Episcopal Church. Downtown. Your GPS will have it."

I peered briefly over his shoulder. The clipping was of a two paragraph obituary. The name, Joan Thompson, did not jog any memories, and the rest of the obit was in too small a typeface to read in a glance.

By the time I turned onto the interstate the silence was becoming uncomfortable. My mother was always the one to carry conversation in our family, while my father maintained a reserved silence, interjecting only to offer facts or render judgements. Looking back, perhaps often he simply did not know what to say but as the youngest and only boy I used, when young, to interpret his tendency to look silently at me rather than speaking as a mental summing up of my inadequacies. Even with this insecurity discarded, his lack of conversation made me uncomfortable.

"Do you normally read the obituaries?" I asked. He made an uncomfortable, half-shrug gesture. "It seems like I only ever make it through the front page and the editorials," I babbled on. "Sometimes the business section. Sunday book reviews."

"I have a lot of time in the morning." He shuffled nervously at his stack. "And at my age, you start seeing people you know there. Like reading the class notes in the alumni bulletin."

"Who is Joan Thompson? Someone you see often? Was she in your painting class or the Senior's Club?"

He turned to look out the window at the buildings flashing by, and for a moment it seemed that he wouldn't answer at all. "No. I haven't seen Joan in years."

St. Luke's, when we reached it, proved to be in what is charitably called a transitional neighborhood, just south of Downtown. In 1900 this area was one of the city's first suburbs, and doctors and lawyers built their massive Victorian piles along gently curving streets. Some of these have been lovingly restored, but these outposts of gentrification are interspersed with boarded up windows, sagging porches, pealing paint, overgrown lawns, groups of young men sitting on porches in the mid-afternoon, their eyes seemingly tracking my car as we drove by.

The church itself stood on a corner. It was a small, pseudo-gothic structure which appeared to be made of concrete, and was surrounded by a towering hedge. The cars in the small lot were an assortment of the very expensive and the fairly old, but none looked as if they would be at home with the rusting Buicks and Mercuries on the street outside.

I parked and looked at my father, waiting to see what came next. His hands twitched aimlessly at the papers in his stack for a moment, a gesture that seemed to become more frequent of late, and which reminded me uncomfortable of my grandfather in his last days.

"How much time?" he asked.

He was wearing a watch, but the question seemed more a play for time and to hear a voice than a request for information. "Ten minutes to two."

"We'd better go in." He opened his door, placed the stack on his seat, and, grabbing onto the sides of the door, hoisted himself out and upright. I hurried round, half offering an arm, but he shook his head and started off at a rapid and steady shuffle towards the church. I followed.

The church door, a massive, carved oak affair, was standing open, and in the doorway stood a heavyset man whose balding head belied the youthful smoothness of his pink, round face. He was wearing a set of vestments that looked like it was straight out of a period movie: long black cassock, out from under which heavy, black dress shoes could just be seen peaking, and a long, white thing of intricate lace over it.

I could see my father trying to get to the door without making contact with the priest, trying to avoid meeting his eyes, but the priest had the sort of outgoing social command which is not easily brooked.

"Welcome," he said, reaching out both hands and enfolding my father's right hand in a two-handed clasp and handshake. "Thank you for coming. I don't believe we've met before. I'm Fr. Phil. Thank you for coming to help us remember Joan. She was important to so many people." There was an almost imperceptible hesitation as he said 'remember', as if he sensed immediately that my father was not religious and held back some phrase like 'pray for'.

Dad returned his handshake, then broke away. He started to walk past, then paused, and, leaning in towards him slightly, said to the priest in a low voice, "Thank you. I cared for Joan. Very much. She was a good friend."

The priest laid a hand briefly on my father's should. Then Dad shuffled past him on into the church. He paused for a moment in the back, letting his eyes adjust to the dim light. Then he made for the second to last pew and moved into it. I noticed the slightest move towards a genuflection as he did so. Dad was, I believe, raised some sort of Catholic, but we'd never practiced any kind of religion when I was growing up. Perhaps entering a pew after so many years triggered old reflexes. I paused a moment, myself, at the entrance to the pew. Did Episcopalians genuflect? I tried to recall a movie scene that might suggest an answer and looked around at those who might be well versed, but everyone in the church was already sitting in a pew. Well, we were visitors after all. I followed my father in and sat down next to him.

It was a relatively small building, there were perhaps 15 or 20 pews on each side of the center aisle, which was carpeted in red. Light filtered in diffusely through stained glass windows, which were all done in a turn-of-the-century medieval style. At the front, even with the first pew and facing the raised area on which the marble altar stood, the casket rested on a wheeled stand, draped in a white cloth which hung nearly to the floor. An organ was working quietly through a set of baroque variations, and there was little talking from the few dozen people seated in the pews in the front half of the church. As we sat and waited, a few more trickled in. All of them passed us and went to fill in the pews in the front half of the church.

A bell began to toll. Then the organ music changed and swelled. The other people in the church stood, and we did as well. A middle aged man in a black and white altar boy outfit was walking up the center aisle carrying an ornate gold crucifix. Behind him was an older man, also in altar boy clothes, with wild white hair and a beard that would have looked at home in the depths of the IT department, swinging a censor that poured out the sweet smelling smoke of incense. Last came the priest who had greeted us at the door, now hearing heavy, gold embroidered vestments over his cassock.

Having only experienced church services in movies and at weddings, I'd never seen anything quite like what followed -- all the trappings of a Catholic mass out of The Godfather or some other old movie, but in English with a touch of Shakespeare in it. We followed the standings and sittings of the rest of the congregation, but aside from that I felt free to listen or let my mind wander by turns. Dad seemed much absorbed, particularly during the priest's sermon, when he talked about how active Joan had been in the church. It seems she'd taught a bible study, volunteered at the soup kitchen and done sundry other things. What her connection was to Dad I still couldn't imagine.

When the service ended, six men carried the draped coffin out, the priest and the men with the cross and the incense leading the way, and the rest of the congregation followed. I wondered if Dad would want to follow them -- go to the cemetery, or whatever was next, but he remained where he had been when the service ended, in a half sitting, half kneeling position with his arms resting on the back of the pew in front of us. Finally, he roused himself and sat upright.

"Let's go."

The parking lot was virtually empty when we left the church. Everyone must have either left or accompanied the hearse to some graveside service. (Scenes from Six Feet Under flashed irrelevantly through my mind.) I helped Dad into the car and he sat there, hunched slightly forward, his hand plucking at his stack of papers.

"Do you want to get some dinner, Dad?"

It was a moment before he said anything. Finally, he almost whispered, "I could really use a drink."

I started the engine. "We're near downtown, so there are lots of options. What kind of place do you want?"

"Somewhere quiet."

I couldn't remember the last time I'd had a drink with Dad. He was not normally a big drinker, though he'd have wine, occasionally, with dinner, and he'd bought me a bottle of twenty year old Scotch when I turned 21. "You need to understand what real liquor is like," he'd explained. "Once you know that, throwing back cheap shots at a party won't appeal at all." I think in his mind this was a piece of worldly fatherly advice, delivered man to man. For me, at the time, it merely served to underscore how little he knew about my life over the last few years.

"I'll take you to The Whisky Room," I offered. The high backed, wooden booths there would fit the desire for quiet -- indeed, in some sense not so removed from the aged wooden pew we had just sat in. And the memory of Dad's gesture with that bottle of Scotch on my 21st birthday brought to mind the extensive Scotch and bourbon lists the Whisky Room had on offer.

When we arrived, I asked for a booth up in the loft, and when Dad proved indecisive when confronted with the menu I ordered us each a sandwich and a tasting flight. Having taken the afternoon off and sat through an hour and a half liturgy for a person I'd never heard of, I was determined both to provide myself with some enjoyment and to get an answer out of Dad as to why this had been so important to him.

We ate our sandwiches in comparative quiet, conversation restricted to the kind of family updates and business which are plentiful and inevitable. When the flights of Scotch came I opened by reminding him of that bottle that he'd given me eighteen years before. Reminiscence of his college days and mine got us each through the first two tasting glasses. Then I allowed the silence to build for a moment and asked, "How did you know Joan? Why did you want to go to her funeral today?"

There was a pause, and I had the uncomfortable feeling of him looking at me, but through and past me.

"I never told your mother about Joan back in the good days. And once things started to go bad, that would only have made things worse. I don't think I've talked about her to anyone since I met your mother."

He stopped and took a minute sip of the fourth Scotch in the flight.

"So you knew her before mom," I prompted.

He nodded, ran a hand over the dome of his head, fluffing the remaining wisps of his hair, then abruptly threw back the rest of that half dram. Then, as if determined to get it out quickly, he ran through the story quickly and simply.

"Yes. I met her not long after I finished college. We dated for a little over a year. I loved her. I asked her to marry me. She told me no. She had a religious objection. I'd been brought up Catholic of course, but I hadn't believed or practiced much of anything since I left home. Since before that, really. I don't know when. She was religious. Anglican. She'd bring me to services with her, had me talk to her priest. I couldn't see it. Never have. Just don't see the purpose. In the end. She asked for time to think about it. Pray about it, she said. She said that she didn't want to find herself raising children with someone she disagreed with about something so important. So she said no. Three months after that, I met your mother. You know how that went."

I waited, knowing that, having started, he would have more to say before he was done. He was swirling the last half dram this way and that in the tasting glass, not having sipped it at all yet, staring at it so fixedly as to make clear how little he wanted to meet my gaze. I don't know if this was out of the reticence that always seems to come between parents and children when discussing either one's romantic lives, or because of the more unusual circumstance that he was describing to me why he had almost not married -- looking back with the knowledge of what had followed, probably still wished he had not married -- my mother. With all that implied for my existence.

"I don't know if she would have changed her mind, if I'd kept asking," he went on. "She was the sort of girl who stuck to principles. Uncompromising. She was a virgin then. Probably was till she died. She never married. I don't know if there was a reason or... she just never found anyone. Maybe if I hadn't given up. But I was angry. And frustrated. And then I met your mother."

"Even after we were married she sent a Christmas card ever year. Half the time, when we sent cards, I sent one back. For years I never heard more from her than that. Then a couple years before the divorce, the card came during a really bad time. I wrote back to her. A long letter about everything that had happened since. Told her about you and the girls. About Linda. All the things I didn't have anyone to talk with about."

"That first letter may have scared her a bit, because I never heard back. But in the end we started writing letters a few times a year. And after the divorce we called each other occasionally. She just told me about her church things and her work at the library and such. Just someone to talk to."

He threw back the last half dram and set the glass down, the five tasting glasses in a neat crescent on the wooden tasting tray. He met my eyes again for the first time since the conversation had started. "You get to this point in life and you can't help spending time thinking about other ways it could have been. What kind of family we would have had if I had married her. What kind of person I would have been if I'd spent every Sunday in that little church for however many years. That's all I could think of during the service."

"Did you ever meet these last few years?"

He shook his head slowly. "No. I don't know why. At first we talked about it. And then, when she was being treated for cancer, somehow I was afraid to meet her. At first we talked about having dinner to celebrate when she was done with treatment and in remission. Then we stopped talking about it. Might have beens could have been interesting otherwise. But with no more future, I didn't know what to say. And as things got worse, all she walked about was her church and prayers and God and things." He drew himself up, sighed, and before I could respond in any way said, "Let's go. It's been a long day. I'm tried."

It was the most I'd ever heard Dad talk about a personal topic -- a window on a side of him that I'd never seen before or even imagined. And now he was distinctly shutting it. Conversation over, time to go our ways.

I paid the check and led him out to the car. He was closing back in on himself. A tired old man, slumping more than earlier in the day. We didn't talk on the drive back to his house. The act of driving Dad somewhere and home again was familiar, as was his sudden tiredness, something which could strike unexpectedly, especially after an errand or conversation. But there was also the new feeling of a stranger sitting next to me. The alternative contingencies of his life played through my mind, as they must often have been doing through his in recent years. What would his life have been like if he had married Joan -- either joining her belief or coming to some agreement to have a divided household in matters of faith?

Irrationally childlike as such a question may be, I couldn't help thinking of it in terms of: What would my life had been like if this other woman had been my mother instead of my own? What sort of person would Dad and Joan's son have been? This flowed naturally into the choices and chances that found me, now, on the doorstep of forty, single, driving my father, likewise single, back from the funeral of the woman he didn't marry.


Dorian Speed said...

This is really good. It should be somewhere besides just a blog you link to once a year.

BettyDuffy said...

I agree. I had my red pen sharpened, and didn't get to use it.

Quin Finnegan said...

I like it a lot. Reminds me a little of David Lodge's Deaf Sentence. Last line kills. "Kills" is what the kids now say when something is really good.