Dad rolled to a stop. Around him? His flank. His family. His, and mine.
At the short end of my sister’s dining table, with wheelchair brakes set by others, Dad let out his song, ‘Happy Birthday.’ His version of it anyway. A rough tenor attempt with great ‘Oh Danny Boy’ conviction.
Vibrato, hard to figure notes dragged up from his basement gut, a yelping pup grabbed by its tail squeezed out a tune that told of the past — pressurized past esophageals, caged lung halls, and memory banks — Dad’s and mine.
The notes he coughed up to a sit fell off his wide, flapping mouth, a Tiki smile over-glazed with jolly Irish.
Dad’s face, the kind of open-happy, unnatural in everyday people, something I had not witnessed from years spent shrinking back from him, afraid he might flip in an instant to an angry roar.
Today, my eyes fixed on that mouth, that face. I did not recognize it or the burst shudder of swansong that kept pouring.
Since Dad’s stroke six years ago, the song, a new development, a mush of wind-up articulations to iron out later like a damp shirt. A sound I figured to be the sound of decay – of caved-ins times now set to music. Stayed notes almost readable in the air waiting for a birth that would not unbreach itself.
That moment of waiting, found time.
Time enough for me to check the stove clock against the time on my wrist, or the dark exposed rough hide under the peel of colored on my best vacation shoes, or the wonder of split fingernails on my hands — a ‘white board’ of my important life — a calculus of my getting away from standing there, from waiting, hanging around, from being present any longer with Dad.
Looking up, Dad still in the before breath of distilled slurs, sounds unmmatched with face, his senseless pendulous delight.
A sound came. Low moans, with something else. Outward, inward, something puny that gatecrashed my stomach, my over too soon final goodbyes, my soft tries to make amends with him over the time.
Before that moment, when I told myself, ‘Yeah, sure,’ when I hung up my phone, ‘this ought to be good,’ thinking about the song my older sister touted as if a top-40 hit; the one my six siblings, near and far, now raced closer to hear, Dad’s grandkids, nieces and nephews, pulled up dining benches alongside, spinning in their seats to listen to hear.
Mom, so excited Dad was back.
That infernal song Dad began to sing.
Notes stirred from an away place, Dad alone in a room of near silent burgeoning wrested during practices in the corner room of his convalesent home between swishes of doctors, aides, nurses, and nuns.
Until the day someone stopped, noticed, listened. And Dad’s song became the family’s centerpiece, and became Dad’s song.
Separate of implied lyrics, and style, his ‘Happy Birthday’ had something else in it too.
Something beyond rote-ness. The pummeled tune had heart. All heart. It still had a beat.
I did not know how to react. What I hated about the man had fallen away. I searched the rasps, for the thing I knew separated me from my Dad.
An absence. A presence.
In Dad, into each shushed face, that Dad’s song touched, a flood wash of church quiet. Sad, robbed, I stood there unknowing, and somehow red-handed.
Before Dad’s stroke, everything Dad, a tall loud man told me in our tiny moments, carpool, quick college check exchanges — lectures, I actually let sink in — I could drop into a demitasse cup and not bring to midpoint fill. I now had to reconsider.
Damn it Dad.
Dad’s life as example lay beyond the chair and in it. Beyond the puffy white arm he now extended to me. His new working arm, still a ramrod. His left arm, his ‘right’ spoke across the room. ‘Sit, daughter, let’s hold hands.’
My ‘eek, not me, not now’ looks, in the dust.
With or without that song, Dad’s gesture, a message, a Turner painting for me, confused oil with water, fire, the purged perfection of persistence. A message leaked to me, through my high-up fences and barbed thinking.
Recasted, the feeble one, me, still fenced, and fencing, the old man, old ways.
On that day, when I stopped to listen, I was hardly in the room, trying to get out, on the threshold, I stood.
Finally I chose, ‘in.’
Lifting the cup set before me, I sipped the forbidden tea.
What struck me so late, despite the odds, the lag of life’s plow, was how through some cracked door, a spring of innateness still worked on Dad, on me.
No. Joyed forth on him, more slowly on me.
A patience and grace had entered between.
Far from Long Island, our native soil, Dad, and I, ‘stood’ on foreign land in L.A., as if on some other planet, a new land gained.
Without so much of an utterance by keeping on with less, some wonder not drained yet from the world, a man showed up for his daughter. And, bit by bit, maybe she.
The invisible playing on of the annoying human condition.
Oh, blessed annoyance. I hate you and thank you.
Through Dad’s doleful ‘requests’ for handholding, singing ‘that song,’ it, now near-sacred (if still blasted and confounded too), a song, my older sister says Dad needs weekly singing lessons for now. Dad’s hobby opera playing on.
That one song changed a man, and that Dad became my Dad.
My Buddha Dad on wheels.
(c) M. K. Smyth 2012