It was five years ago that my father passed away on Valentine’s Day. His little joke, as in: remember me. How could I not? Every 14th of February finds me standing by him at Arlington National Cemetery as winter wind—some years rain, some years snow—chills me right through the red vest he passed on to me. The other things he gave me are the greater things I carry.
Another day in paradise was his answer to how he was doing. We talked most evenings. In his final years, he had become Ol’ Man River, and he added to his paradisical catchphrase that he was tired of living and scared of dying. That always made me sad. But he’d perk up: he hadn’t seen his obit in the Times that morning, so it was a good day.
He was a trainer in the big war, standing tall in the U. S. Army Air Corps. After the war, he went back to school on the G. I. Bill and marched on to a law degree. But what he was, was kind to a fault. If you awakened him from a deep slumber, no bother, he was just resting his eyes. If his mother-in-law the hypochondriac called him nightly, her doctor without portfolio, to reel off her litany of psychosomatic illnesses, he listened patiently with the periodic tolling of a yes or no you could have set a clock by.
Love her as I do, my mother is also a piece of work, let’s face it, as different as a person could possibly be. If you don’t think opposites attract, I enter them as evidence to the contrary. She made us all crazy on a daily basis, but he would just button his vest, toss on a raincoat—it was always raining somewhere, and eventually it would get here—and take a long walk. If he wasn’t so fried that he had to be alone, we would walk together, mile upon mile upon mile. There were no words that needed to be said. We had escaped. We were in the wind. We were man and boy about town. When you’re out, you’re out.
Like many members of the Greatest Generation, he was silent about the war years and a lot else. Yet when I joined Time Inc. on my way to writing the elusive Great American Novel, he told me I should try television. I didn’t know where that was coming from: he seldom even watched it. Eventually I did gravitate to TV, no thanks to him.
After he passed, I was sorting through his papers and came upon his articles in The New York Law Journal about broadcasting cases before the FCC. He had never told me his work had touched on television. Never. The hidden life of a quiet man. He didn’t require much. Shoe leather and a street to walk on.
Today, a father and a hard traveler myself, I have encountered so much human frailty and mortality that I have worn out the shoes on that mental walkabout, that stroll with my father, down streets warmed by his presence. All I have to do is nod yes and no, rest my eyes when I can, force my mouth into a smile and feel my brain responding. It’s another day in paradise. We’re still here, and everyone we love is here still inside of us. We walk and talk.
When my mother went into a nursing home, my father decided he had to be there with her. He didn’t need to, but he did. He suffered a series of small strokes, and he couldn’t get up to see her. He would ask me how she was. He was there to take care of her. He passed soon after, handing me the torch. Deep in dementia, my mother’s memory has become fragile as gossamer. She doesn’t respond now when you say his name, Dan.
On her 97th birthday, my energizer mother stares at me across three-thousand miles, through the miracle of FaceTime on my brother Doug’s iPhone, and we echo the one sentence that says it all: I love you.
As I gaze at the screen, a nurse steps into the background and asks my mother who is on the phone. My mother looks at me and answers, as if it’s obvious: my husband. Well hello.
So Dad, Dan, the better man in me, I stand before you now and await my turn. The river is wide; one day I will cross over. I’ll be wearing your vest, and carrying inside me all the rest. I could never walk as far or endure as much. Here we are: another day in paradise, dreaming on my feet, resting my eyes. Quality time with my old man on this Valentine’s Day.
Dalton Delan is an accomplished American writer, editor, television producer and documentary filmmaker. His column is copyrighted by Berkshire Writers Group.