None of us knew what we had, until it was gone; or if we did know in part, we didn’t fully understand, until it all became just a memory.
In his prime, my step-father had a regal bearing; he was tall, and stood even taller in my thoughts and feelings towards him. He wore turtlenecks which to me as a child, added to his stature and somehow gave his face and frame a look of royalty.
I also admired my father; more for his mind and helpful advice than for his appearance or actions. Also, he was kind, and aside from a certain disquiet in his soul, which led to a recurring dalliance in his life choices, he was otherwise trustworthy and a man of integrity.
My mother was all things to me and though we had our disagreements, we also had each other’s backs and we faced the world’s assaults together.
My brother was eleven years older than me and so we didn’t know each other very well. We were amicable but generally distant; this in part due to the difference in age, but more due to his reclusive nature. Over the years I came to accept this distance and that he preferred to live as a bit of a hermit, at least towards his family, and that we probably would never really be very close.
So I was surprised when he invited me one day to have lunch with him and spend the afternoon in the redwoods. He even went to the trouble of making cheese sandwiches for us and packing them, along with sodas, into brown lunch bags for our outing. After thirty-eight years we finally had lunch together. And we became friends. This led to semi-regular phone calls to each other and discussions about sports cars, foreign and domestic, and other important life matters.
We enjoyed one more lunch together, about two years later. This time he treated my wife and I to a meal at his favorite Japanese restaurant; the kind where they cook the meal there at your table. There was an exquisite intimacy in that meal: the gift of his time, the quietness and the laughter shared between the three of us, the warmth and the affection, the glasses of red wine.
I will always remember the red wine, so pretty in the glass. My brother loved red wine. Sometimes he loved it too much. A month after this meal, on his way home from a dinner with a friend, he was pulled over and arrested for driving while intoxicated. Because of this he lost his license, and then his job as a bus driver, and a few weeks later he shot himself.
Our last phone conversation, a few days earlier had focused on God, death and the afterlife. I suppose he was mulling his options, though I only understood that, too late.
Several months later my step-father fell and broke his hip. He went to a rehab center but his health slowly began to decline. We hoped for a recovery however, week by week he lost strength. One day while my mom and I were visiting him he asked me to give his face a shave. He had an electric razor on the nightstand beside his bed.
Here it was again, that exquisite intimacy: the gift of his time, the quietness, the warmth and affection, just as it had been during that last meal with my brother. Here I was shaving the face of that man I always admired, that royal face. I did the best with my moment and the honor I was given in caring for him in this way; I’m sure it wasn’t the best shave he’d ever had but that wasn’t for lack of trying on my part.
There is something else to say about my step-father because it is so beautiful and so endearing. He loved life with a childlike enthusiasm. There are many numerous examples from his life of this fact but what remains with me now is from our final minutes together, the last ones I would spend with him alive. On this last visit, just before I left, he asked me to push him in his wheelchair around the corridors of the rehab center.
The main hallway outside his room made one large circuit, and lining the walls were paintings and large photographs. As I pushed him around this circuit he asked me to stop at most of these, and we admired them together. They were of trees, or landscapes mostly, while some were of sunsets or sunrises. Of each he had multiple comments as to their beauty and how much they meant to him, or how they reminded him of his childhood or some other time in his life. Each painting or photo was greeted with appreciation; and he approached each one, in the same way he lived each day, it seems, with gratefulness and benevolence. Just as one would expect of a royal and noble man such as he.
As my mom explained it to me over the phone, she was with him several weeks later, holding his hand as he was sleeping. While he peacefully slept, he graciously stepped into the next world, breathing one moment, and not the next.
Years later my mom would explain that he was the true love of her life. In the manner and tone with which she explained this however she also conveyed the truth that she never really understood this fact at the time, or expressed it to him fully while they were together, and she wished she had.
I hadn’t seen or spoken with my dad for several years. I had joined a spiritual community in my early twenties and had been living a nomadic life; traveling, living and working in various states, which precluded much contact with friends and family. To earn money I did landscaping work and sold this service door to door. One day I was out walking the streets, knocking on doors as I typically would do in the afternoon, when I felt certain I was about to see my dad.
It was one of those rare times in which I sensed that what was about to happen would be an important and seminal moment in my life. A car came into view, approaching up the street and I knew it would be him so I stepped off the curb and flagged him down. In my childhood, he and I had been affectionate, he was not afraid to give me a hug, but I can’t remember a time that we ever held each other’s hands. I got into his car and we began to talk and to catch up on each other’s lives. And as we spoke we took each other’s hands. It was such an unnatural thing for us to do and yet it felt extremely natural. Our time was short as he was late for an appointment and had to get going. I felt the urgency to tell him how much I loved him and how much he meant to me, and my gratitude for his role in my life. He expressed similar feelings of love and affection, and all the while we kept holding hands. I will always remember how unusual, how strange, and also how wonderful that was.
Later that year I called my mom and she had the difficult task of telling me that my father had died several months earlier. They had tried to find me, to tell me, so I could go to the funeral but they had no way to contact me, and didn’t know where I was, or how to reach me. She was so sorry that I didn’t know about his death but I explained to her that I did know. I knew back then in his car, as we were holding hands, that I would never see him again, and that this would be the last time to hold him, and to express my true feelings for him.
Not long ago my mother also stepped into the next world, having taken her last breath for the journey, and leaving my sisters and I with a house full of memories. Our final months together were filled with tenderness and intimacy. She could hardly say a word and she spent most of her days and nights with her eyes shut and seemingly asleep, but she knew when we were near.
As she lay in her bed, we held wordless conversations, communicating love through the simplicity of touch. She had beautiful silver hair, and while it had thinned considerably, she still enjoyed occasionally having it combed, and it was a joy to have the opportunity to do that for her.
My heart is filled by the memory of her thinning hair, her sunken cheeks and deep eye sockets, her bruised papery skin and bony hands; all things which sound ugly and disturbing, and yet to me, as I see them on her, are symbols and representations of perfect beauty; because she could be nothing less than supremely beautiful in whatever appearance she presented.
Of course I have surrounded myself with photos of her in earlier times: smiling photos, full of life, joy and health. These also are beautiful, but the memories that now fill me most with love and gratitude are from these final months together, while death began to pull us apart, dwelling within that exquisite intimacy.