Wednesday, May 18, 2011

In which the scent finally leaves my dad's clothes

For years after my dad died (in 1997), I had this dream where I would hear his voice calling me from the kitchen. It was the kitchen in my place in Miami. I lived there after he died and of course he never visited. But I would hear his voice clear as day and I could even see him standing there and I would wake up and run to the kitchen because maybe his death had been a bad dream and he wasn't really dead.

Every time I got to the kitchen, it was empty. I would be left bewildered at how I could have been so sure that he was alive. I had heard his voice! It was his voice. I had heard him. And yet there was nothing.

And each time I woke up and found out he was really dead, it was like he had just died. You never get closure. Those grief counselors they send to schools every time something awful happens? Do they do any good? Talking about death does not change it. Telling someone you feel crummy doesn't make you feel less crummy.

You never get over losing someone you love. You just get used to it. But sometimes, even when you think enough time has passed that you accept that this is just how life is now - Life Minus One - you will be shocked at the sharp, fresh pain that stabs you. That pain should be dull and small by this point, but it's not. It's almost as bad as it was the first time.

Your mileage may vary, of course. I suspect that if a parent or sibling who was never All That dies that those left behind don't mourn so much. Maybe they feel guilty about things that were unresolved or feel guilty that that don't mind that the person is dead, but they don't have a big empty gash inside of them that never quite heals. That, too, is sad, because who wants a crummy parent who won't be mourned? Then the mourning is for the relationship that never was.

And of course I am talking out of my elbow here because how can I possibly know how someone else feels? I have no idea. I can just imagine. Let's just say that there are some people in my life whose absence I will not mourn as much as others and I would think that others would have similar situations.

I digress. I have lived over one third of my life now with my dad dead. I have almost 14 years of memories that don't include him. I don't look around my house now and think, "Oh! I remember when Dad repaired that dripping faucet!" I don't think, "That was the year Dad got the turkey skin out of the trash." My home now doesn't have cues about my dad.

All I have is a photo on my dresser of my dad and me from 25 years ago, taken in the front yard of our house in San Antonio, a few years before my parents moved to Saudi Arabia. I am standing behind my dad with my arms around him and clasped around his neck. We are both wearing red, which was not something I did much in those days even though really, I look good in red. My hair is John from the nice beauty shop in West University blonde; my dad's is silver.

We are both smiling broadly and naturally but with our eyes open, a rare instance indeed for both of us as we are both not photogenic at all and quite awkward in front of the camera. Usually, we have forced grimaces, but my mom caught us at the perfect moment - laughing but before our eyes squinch shut.

We look happy.

There are reminders all over my house of my mom. When I vacuum in the basement rec room, I think about my mom spending three hours pushing the carpet cleaner back and forth to suck the water out of the soaking wet basement flood carpet.

Oh yes. We have annual basement floods. Have I told you about them? Perhaps I'll write about them later, but let's hope that I don't have any new material this summer because the floods put Primo in full freakout mode. Fortunately, they are followed by full engineer mode and we have saved our carpet each time, but it is a pain in the neck.

I see the irises in my front garden that my mom brought me from her garden and that originally came from my grandmother's garden up north. I have a bottle of leftover soy milk in my chest freezer for her next visit. Fortunately, lactose intolerance is something I have not inherited from her. Most people would probably agree that chubby thighs, a small bosom, and a tendency to migraines would be enough of a heritage to inflict on anyone.

When my mom visits, we talk about my dad. We tell Primo about him and Primo politely listens. Primo somehow turned out to be a very nice person, despite everything, and for that, I do thank his parents. They did one thing right at least and that's all I'll say about that for now.

Primo watched the videotape my mom gave me of my dad's last days. Someone lent us a video camera when my dad was in hospice for the last week of his life and we taped my dad telling stories. He lies there, bald and shrunken, 50 pounds underweight, in his hospital bed. In one shot, my brother, sister and I gather around him, unsmiling, with flat eyes. It's hard to radiate joy when your father is dying. But my dad, of all of us, makes an effort. He tries to smile and put a good face on it.

When he is telling stories, he genuinely smiles. He talks about hitting a big seagull once when he was riding his bike down a long hill in Panama. The bird got the short end of the stick as Force = Mass times Acceleration, which would have been

Force = [My dad's then-170 lbs] x [about 9.8 meters/second squared and I say "about" because that is the rate of gravity in an environment with no friction, but as my college physics prof always advised us, I am ignoring friction even though friction is real and you can't ignore it and also disregarding the fact that my dad would have been descending at an angle as opposed to dropping straight down, so you would have to throw in some other math there to make it come out right - so about but definitely less than 9.8 m/s2]

Force = whatever the math works out to but definitely more force than an eight-pound seagull could absorb without losing some feathers and the contents of his bowels

My dad laughs as he tells this story. Primo turns to me and says, "Wow. Your dad really had a strong [regional] accent," which is true and which is something I had never noticed before because he was just my dad, you know? But now that I hear that accent a lot, I recognize it a lot easier. Ainso?

I visited my mom earlier this month for a few days. She had a minor outpatient surgery to improve her vision and I went to help out during her convalescence. My "helping" turned out to be griping about having to get up at 5:15 a.m. to take her to the surgery center. After that, I got the ice pack from the freezer and put salve on her eyes. And made her supper and did the dishes. And kept her company.

Don't you wish you had a daughter like me?

It should have been my dad doing all that. Not that I minded - well, I was not crazy about the getting up early part - but you're not supposed to be widowed when you are only 54, as my mom was. Even 68, as she is now, seems young to be a widow. Lots of men older than that still hanging out, taking their slow walks around town in their sensible brown shoes and stopping to talk to me about the apple blossoms that have finally appeared or when to plant tomatoes or the millwork on the old Victorian house down the street.

One afternoon, while my mom was taking a nap, I went into the big closet off the guest bedroom. My mom has decades of her clothes in there - things she will probably never wear again but cannot bear to part with. One item is a beautiful belted, tailored yellow dress she made from a Vogue pattern, which, for those of you who do not sew, is the fancy, expensive brand of clothing patterns. But the dress is lovely and has bound buttonholes, which, again for those who do not sew, are a real pain in the neck but a sign of Quality.

If I had put that much work into a dress, I would not get rid of it, either. I would make a little shrine around the dress showing that I used to be able to sew like a pro. There is almost no point to sewing one's own clothes any more as decent clothes are available at a more than reasonable price at consignment stores and nice fabric is so expensive and who wants to do all that work with cheap fabric? It's like when I knit - I buy real wool because I am not going through all that with acrylic.

She has her clarinet from high school, when she got a One at State. Her dolls from when she was a little girl. Needlework from my grandmother.

And my dad's clothes.

Not all of them. Enough. A few suits and sport coats and a track suit.

She has moved three times since my dad died. The clothes have moved with her. Every time I visit her, I go into the closet to run my hands over my dad's clothes and to smell them. For years, his scent lingered. I would bury my face in the silk sport jacket and inhale.

How do you save the smell of someone you love? Every time I smell the combination of moth balls and lavender, I am back at my Granma Sylvia's house. Primo and I had a month-long breakup during our courtship. I didn't wash his bath towel the entire time. Instead, I kept it hanging on the shower curtain rod and sniffed it every time I went into the bathroom. I could pick my mom's pillow out of a dozen random pillows. I still put on Polo cologne every time I am in a department store because that is what my college boyfriend wore and he smelled so good.

This time, the smell was gone. My dad's scent was gone. I can't even remember what it was like. Maybe a combination of clean sweat from riding his bike to work, airplane fuel (he was more or less an aircraft mechanic), and Old Spice. The Dad Smell. It's gone. It will never come back.