In a couple of weeks, my Dad will turn 85 or perhaps 90. We’re not sure which. He was born in Cuba back in the days when babies were dropped in the fields or maybe at home in a narrow string bed. Records were kept in the head of the oldest woman in the village, usually the midwife, or sometimes if it was a small town and they had a parish priest, he’d write the children’s names in a yellowing vellum ledger. And if the church hadn’t burned down or been looted by the time you realized you needed the documents, you might be able to track down your ancestors.
In my Dad’s case, we think his parents were migrant agricultural workers – cane cutters, maybe, who traveled by small mail boats from island to island in search of employment. His father’s name was David and his mother’s was Catherine. I discovered that on his discharge papers from the British Corps of Engineers. The birth date he used was the same one as that for his younger brother. Likely, it was just that the itinerant priest was in the neighborhood when my grandmother birthed the youngest one and – just in case – they were both baptized on the same day.
I’ve been trying to organize a party of sorts for daddy, but there’s history that keeps butting in and biting my good intentions on the ass. You see, about 45 years ago, Dad decamped to England, back to the arms of a wild-haired somewhat erratic Yorkshire woman he’d met there during the war. He left behind an unproductive fruit farm in Niagara, a wife who couldn’t drive and had no profession with which to earn a living wage and four bewildered children under the age of 12. But that’s another story.
At the news of an impending celebration of the old man’s life so far, my youngest brother – 10 years younger than me – packed up his aged van and drove to Nova Scotia with his wife and their children for a month. So of course, he wouldn’t be available. No surprise there – he was three when it all happened and has only blurry memories of his sire. When I called up my second brother – six years younger – he merely sounded uninterested. When pressed, he admitted that he was still angry for having been abandoned and didn’t see the point in celebrating an event like a birthday at this late date, when so many of his had been missed with no excuse given. My son said the kids would be cranky if they missed their afternoon nap and if grandpa doesn’t remember them now anyway, on account of his creeping dementia…. What to do, what to do?
Nothing this time. On Father’s day, fresh from taking him out for a lovely lunch and trying not to watch the food slip from his unsteady fork into his coat sleeve or back onto his plate, I sent the rest of the family a digital photo of Dad looking vacantly wistful and rheumy-eyed, a forgotten boy-man clad in a blue plaid shirt and the jaunty cream-coloured silk scarf I’d bought him. I told them, truthfully, that at first he didn’t really know who I was – and I’d always been his number one girl. I cajoled them into calling, saying that he probably wouldn’t live out the year, what with his Alzheimer’s racing to erase the finish line of his memory track and the way his spine is slowly curving him back to the earth, like a broken stalk of field corn in mid-winter. So they called – I checked.
But this time, I can’t whip up the enthusiasm for pulling everyone together again – siblings, children, grandchildren, the five great-grandchildren – for a picnic in Centennial Park by his house on the outskirts of Hamilton (he doesn’t travel well now, you see, and we’d have to worry about the Depends holding up during a long car ride). At first, I figured the younger kids could amuse themselves by running amok among strangers’ picnic hampers, throwing Frisbees too far to catch and not making grandpa anxious with the noise and scuffling. I promised to devise a special menu for everyone – one thing about our family is that we have always been interested in food. Maybe that comes from all of the less-than meals we endured growing up poor and proud. They wavered for maybe ten seconds, then declined regretfully (we are still very polite, even when pissed or dissed).
I’ve done my introspection and find I don’t feel much of anything. Sure, I’m sad because Dad is very old and declining, but, as my brother asked, why am I trying so hard to keep us all together. And in pursuit of what? Once my Mom died eight years ago at 78, there really no longer was that thick parental guilted-rope to keep us moored close to shore. She’d always dreaded the degradation of decline and escaped early,without notice, even though we weren’t ready. Mind you, none of us would ever have been ready for Mom to go. What irony that Dad, who’d skipped when we were young and returned when we were grown, should be the fulcrum against which we defined our past and divined our future.