Sunday, November 13, 2005

My Father's Stones

Picture this: A man in his early seventies, six foot-four. A big man with blue eyes. Put him in a plastic raincoat with a drawstring hood and draw the string too tight, so that the hood plasters tight to his head and sits too low on his forehead. He is walking down a suburban street just after sunset. It is windy and pouring rain. Now, give him a cane, on which he leans heavily. See the wind tugging at the legs of his pants and his raincoat. He has lost a shoe. His mouth is hanging open, his eyes look vacant.

“I had to phone,” Vanessa, my father’s wife, my friend says. She’s laughing shakily, the way you might laugh as someone pushed you over Niagara Falls in barrel. “He looked like that painting, “The Scream,” by Edvard Munch. I absorb this and try to refrain from platitudes. I understand the horror and sorrow of it. There is no suggestion I can make that will help. “I had to phone someone,” she says. Yes. I would have had to phone someone too.

My father has Parkinson’s disease and suffers from the after-effects of a sub-arachnoid hemorrhage, a kind of self-repairing aneurysm. His knees don’t work. He falls. Down cement steps smashing his head to the pavement, into walls, off chairs. The falls have caused further brain injury. His hearing is nearly gone. His memory cuts in and out. He has a heart condition but his bowel and prostate cancer are in remission. The look on his face, that windy, rain-soaked night, is called Parkinson’s Mask.

My father: painter of trees and landscape, carpenter, cook, planner and builder. A man who loves to sing. My father asks me, on the last visit, “Did you ever marry, dear?” I smile at him. “Yes, Dad.” Three times. I don’t say it aloud.

My father, collector of stones. The wooden deck in back of his new house is edged with a double row of stones that progress from the size of large grapes to the size of melons. They are uniformly oval or round, gray, rose, yellow, and he has picked them up for years. He pocketed them when he went to the woods to paint his beloved landscapes, when he used to go camping with Vanessa and the kids, my half-sister and brother, Jason and Yolanda. Small perfect treasures.

The stones sat in bowls around the house, or were carefully placed by ornaments for years. Now, four hundred and eight-nine of them surround the deck, resting neatly between strips of wooden dowel.

Vanessa had called me when she discovered the stones. She’d looked out from the bedroom window on the second floor and there they were. It must have taken him hours to arrange them in size order. It shocked her. The obsessive order of it, perhaps. Why? She couldn’t figure out what neurons fired in his brain, directed him to suddenly surround the deck with stones.

“He used to have such a good sense of composition. An artistic way of arranging things.”

When you live with someone who has changed so greatly, become so diminished, things like this are frightening, another sign of deterioration. Later, she will see them as beautiful, but now they are just one more reason to feel panic.

When I see the stones, I marvel at them. Easy enough for me, who lives a thousand miles away and doesn’t wash urine-soaked sheets each morning, doesn’t have to catch him when he is determined to take out a chain-saw and prune trees to death. Easy for me who doesn’t contend with fits of stubborn determination to climb life-endangering ladders or to descend stairs that inevitably hurl him to the bottom landing, bruised and bleeding.

I marvel at them. I tell my father they are beautiful, and that I’ve counted them. He is pleased. He agrees they are lovely and tells me how he’s picked them up, one at a time, choosing them for their hues and shapes. “I put them in my pocket,” he says. “Yes, Dad, I know.”
“I spotted this one I especially love,” I tell him.

“Oh? Which?”

I pick up a flat round stone small enough to fit in the center of my palm. “It’s the color,” I explain, “look how yellow it is. I love this one.” I turn to him with the stone in my hand. “Do you think I could have it? As a keepsake?” He considers a moment and said, “Yes. If you put the rows back in order and find one in the house the same size, to replace it. And don’t lose it.” I nod agreement to the terms and curl my fingers tight around the stone. “Thanks, Dad. I love you.”

When my father died, I stuffed as many of the stones as I could manage to carry in my suitcase. Of all the mementos I have – his paintings, his old robe, his favorite hat – the stones are my favorite. I have begun to pick up stones myself. They sit in bowls all over my apartment, but I always keep my father’s stones together, in a circle, arranged by size and shape, with the yellow stone at the front. I didn’t lose it, Dad.

[This piece was written in 2001. I was thinking about my father after reading "Special Secret Veteran's Day Post." (I'd like to recommend the blog this post appeared on - particularly that entry.There is a link to Mr. Head's House of Dread on the right hand side of this page. Thanks to Mr. H. for a very memorable and moving entry.)


Koru's Daughter said...

This is lovely and touching.

Teri said...

This is so beautiful. I am really close with my dad and I would just fall apart if anything happened to him. I know it'll happen someday, but I hope Tessa is much, much older when it does.


LJ said...

I'm a lot older Teri. I'm sure Tessa will have years with her grandfather.

A note. After years of stormy relationship with my father, the two of us were completely at peace with each other before he died. He was a good guy.
I wish you many years with your father around.