I am in my father’s study, sitting at his desk staring out the window into our backyard, a place of countless memories that will soon add one more. I have fled to this room, Dad’s sancto santorum, not only to flee the chaos that is taking place in other parts of the house but because it is a place I can still sense his presence, even a year after his death. Perhaps one reason for this is the room is unchanged since he sat behind the desk here. The Oxford English Dictionary is still on its stand spread open revealing its inner meanings. His bookshelf lined with the photographs of his children, grandchildren and the adventures he had during his life.
I have loved his desk since he and my mother bought a matched set 50 years ago. It is of Scandinavian design, made of teak and has crisp clean lines with nooks and spaces that belied its simplicity. It suited his personality perfectly. It was a serious desk for a serious man with a touch of style and places to hide things that you did not want others to see. It is a desk, where I uncovered truths about my old man. When he was not home, I’d rifle its drawers for hidden secrets. Treasures such as the autopsy report on his father that showed he had died of a combination of alcohol and the medications he was taking. The two guns my father had taken as war booty. A secret stash of pornography.
After my father’s passing , Mom had promised this desk to me. But sitting behind on this day I knew that while it may be in my possession one day, it would be always be his desk. And the thought of that comforted me. Because on this day, more than anything, I wish he were here. As an only child, whose extended family had been murdered by the Nazis, he had a deep love of family events. They made him feel like he had done his part in rebuilding the world; that the lonely boy who was sent off with the goat herder had his own flock and would never be alone. And he would have been delighted with today’s affair. After all he had been there for the beginning of the story.
When I had returned from the cruise 16 months ago, I had barely stopped at my apartment to drop my luggage off and pick up my dog Yankee, before heading to my parents’ home. I wanted, needed, to tell Dad about my adventures. Don’t misunderstand me. It isn’t that I didn’t want to see Mom and share some of my stories with her, but Pops was my adventure buddy. He was always thrilled to hear the adventures of his children and would press to hear of the places we had been and even the food we had consumed. But it was more that. He was also desperately sick with kidney disease.
For the past two years he had been confined to a wheelchair, his world shrunk to his home and even there he rarely went anywhere besides the master bedroom suite and the kitchen. During that time, I had spent most weekend and the occasional week days sharing primary care giver duties with my mother. While this ate much of my free time, I did not think of it as a burden. Even when it was overwhelming. I was grateful I had the ability and the where with all to take care of him. And, to be honest, I was getting something out of it as well. Time with the old man.
It was typical on weekends for me to be take care of my Dad in the mornings. There were the unpleasant parts of that job which included dealing with his biological needs including emptying cath bags and changing diapers. This would embarrass him some but as I explained to him, he used to do it for me, so why should he be embarrassed for me doing it for him. But the pleasant far outweighed the negative. I would cook him breakfast and bring it to him on a tray and as he ate, we would talk about everything from current events to selected stories from the volumes of his personal library of memories. Often these conversations would last long past breakfast and encroach on lunch. These discussions changed our relationship from father/son to something higher. The place where father and son become friends and confidants.
It was during one of these morning conversations months earlier he had voiced a concern that I was spending too much time with him and not enough time taking care of myself. When I told him that I was doing fine and there was nothing for him to worry about he called bullshit on me. He said I was alone, without a partner, and that was no way to navigate life. He worried about me being alone and that spending time with him gave me less opportunity to find someone with whom to spend my life or would not allow time for a relationship to develop. I had, as one does, downplayed his concern. I am fine. I have a robust dating life. Yankee was a chick magnet. But he was right. I was lonely. Spending time taking care of him and assisting my Mom cut huge swaths of time out of my life. Time that could have been spent pursuing love.
The reason I was rushing to my parents’ home after my journey of 20 days, 12,000 miles and 6 countries was I wanted to tell Pops about Elaine.
The car ride from my apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Summit NJ where my parents live is barely 20 miles and on good days doesn’t take much longer that 40 minutes door to door. I spent most of that trip trying to figure out how to tell Dad the story of my trip. As excited as I was about falling in love with Elaine I did not want to lead with that story. While meeting her was far and away the most important thing that had happened on my journey distance and time had made me circumspect. Shipboard romances often have a truly short shelf life. The artificial setting of vacation and adventure is a hot house environment for romance and the transplanting of it to the real world is fraught with peril. In the case of Elaine and I, the challenges we face were even greater as we were also negotiating a relationship and love that would have to survive a 6,000-mile separation.
Those doubts had not blunted my ardor. On the flight home from Rome I had written Elaine a love letter.
My dear love.
Dawn was blue in Rome this morning.
When I stepped out of my hotel this morning, the ink black had turned a blue usually only found in lapus lazullli. At that hour, the streets of Rome are empty and my cab driver decided to exercise his inner grand prix driver. I don’t think that you have really lived until you have bombed down the narrow cobbled streets strewn with antiquities
But my eye kept turning to the sky and its deep color of blue. It made the perfect backlighting for the forum and coliseum as if pictures of those ancient marvels had been mounted on dark blue construction paper they were so perfectly silhouetted against the early day.
As we moved from the center of Rome towards the perimeter the sceneary changes, baroque buildings, sculptures and were replaced by Umbrella Pines and more modern apartments. The sky changed from indigo to the medeterrean blue we saw that last day of the cruise.
I was so tired that it was hard for my mind to hold a single thought beyond a few sentences. They came at fast and quick like the kilometer markers on the side of the autostrada.
The reason for my fatigue was that I had awakened at 3:30 AM and could not fall back sleep. My first thought as you might imagine was of you. I wondered if the hotel room at the airport was nice. I thought about how badly I wanted to see you, hold you, kiss you and how I would be so close that maybe I should direct my cab there instead of the terminal. I wondered whether seeing you just for a moment would hurt more than relieve the ache I feel.
I thought about cancelling my flight home and just spending a few more days in Rome with you. I contemplated what it would be like to walk the via Veneto with you, to stare at fresco’s on church walls, even to shop the city with you. What it would be like to hear your laugh and call my “my love’ in that soft wonderful accent I adore. I thought about how it might be to have you in bed and I tried to imagine your body spooned with mine.
I knew that this what I wanted more than anything and I began to plan what it would take to make it happen. I would have to arrange for someone to take care of Yankee for a few days as my sitter was off to LA in the morning. That could be arranged but it would require some time on the phone and probably a bribe or two. Then there was my father and his health and my responsibility to him. While I didn’t think that a few days would make that much of a difference I do know that I have a growing sense of unease about his health over the last couple of weeks. The part of me that is a son, wants to be near him and care for him, because I know the time is going to come all to soon that I will not be able to. Then I thought about the new job that I am supposed to start tomorrow. The people who have asked me to work with them have been pretty tolerant of my extended holiday and I know I would push it a little further…
But then I thought of you. Would you really want to spend the next few days in Rome with me. While I have faith in how you feel about me I don’t know what the current situation is with Christian and Yarra. Would adding me to the mix make things worse or a little better. I don’t know. For that matter I didn’t even really know where you were? How would we meet? What if I got there and you were not there. What if I arrived and you had left for the city….
But I did ache for you at that hour. I so badly wanted to be with you. And you were so close.
So I wrestled with my thoughts there in hotel room for two long hours before I gave up. The only consolation I had was that the hotel had a wonderful tub shoulder deep that I remember being the standard in Europe when I was a child…I thought they were mini swimming pools…so at 5:30 or so I took a hot bath. And while it was lovely it didn’t help untangle my thoughts or even make that sleepy.
I was deep in thought about my thoughts as the first signs for the airport appeared in the brightening sky. I was employing wishful thinking. I was hoping that as we got near to the airport your hotel would be apparent and I could tap my driver on the shoulder and say “Pull over in there and hold the cab while I run inside for a second.” It was a lovely fantasy to have and good for my sleep addled brain but alas it turned out to be just a fantasy as your hotel didn’t appear out of the mist of the early day and far too soon the driver had dropped me in front of the terminal.
Getting checked in was quick and efficient and before too long I was sitting in the shopping mall they call a terminal. I thought of Yarra and Christina making one more round of shopping before heading home. The good news there is that they will not find much to buy….perhaps some booze, or cosmetics but the stores by and large are very upscale and fashion focused.
The folks at United Airlines were kind enough to give me a pass to their first class lounge so I went there to wait for my flight. It was a big open area with lots of seating down in an Italian modern style. Along the far wall was a panorama of Italian scenes but it really much of a place. Not much food. Nespresso machines instead of the real coffee. So I made myself a terrible expresso and sat down far from other people so I can find a little piece and quiet and close my eyes for just a little bit.
I never found sleep but I did get to that transcendental place between consciousness and sleep. I thought of your hand in mine. I thought of how your hair smells. I thought of the moment you saw in the Round the Clock Lounge waiting for passports and the fierce hug and kiss you gave me. I thought of your laugh and smile and how each gave me joy.
And then they called my plane and before I knew it we were leaving the ground. And I stared out the window I hope that luck would allow me to see your hotel but I was not that lucky as we headed east and over the sea that had been our birthplace and our home for so many days.
I am tired now and must rest. I must find a pillow to put my head on but know that I love for you is bigger than the United States including Alaska. I will find you in my dreams. Love pdr.
Yankee made up the three flights of stairs to my father’s bedroom far quicker than I did. Not only did he have four legs to my two, he was one of the most intuitive dogs I have ever known. In a crowded room, he could pick out the person whom needed the most love in nano seconds. And he loved my Dad. He would spend hours sitting or laying on the floor next to him keeping him company and leaning in for the occasional pet. When I entered Dad’s room, Yankee was sitting next to him, his head in Pop’s lap, while my father whispered sweet dog nothings to him.
I walked over and while simultaneously giving him a hug around his shoulders and kissing him on top of his heads, said “Hey Pops.”
“Your home! Welcome back. How was your trip.”
For the next hour I told him of my adventures. How wonderful it was to spend time with my cousins in Sao Paulo. How they greeted me as if the prodigal son returned and how Lia had shown me a picture of our grandmothers, sisters, that was taken shortly before they had said goodbye to each other forever. How it inspired me to write a story about them. I told him the story of my first few nights on the cruise. How lonely I had been and begging the Maitre Di to please find someone whom who I could have dinner that spoke English. I described my meeting of Elaine. How over a series of adventures in Salvador, Fuchal, Teneriffe, Gilbralter and Casablanca and long dinners we had fallen in love.
When I had finished my monologue, I reached into my backpack and pulled out a tissue wrapped package and said “I almost forgot, I brought you a present in Casablanca.” In the pre-history of my life, my Dad had found himself in Cairo and had purchased a brown and white djellaba, a type of hooded robe worn by North African Arabs. He loved it and would often wear at night while working at his desk. Memories of late night talks with him while wearing the Djellaba are some of the warmest of my childhood and while we were in Casablanca I was determined to find him a lightweight version. One he could wear now. Elaine and had navigated a crowded Casablanca souk to find it.
When he held it up I said “It is a light version of your djellaba. Elaine and I picked it out for you. Do you like it? I bought a matching one for Ollie. I thought it would be fun for you two to dress alike as you look so much like each other.”
“I love it.”
“Try it on.”
As I helped put the robe on, not an easy task for someone in wheelchair, I said “Can I ask your advice about something?”
“Dad, I have no doubt that I am in love with Elaine. She is everything I have ever hoped for in a woman. She is beautiful. She is smart. She is funny. She laughs at my jokes…”
“Considering your sense of humor that is remarkable…
“Nice..But I am worried. How do I know that this is not just some shipboard romance that last only as long as the cruise and then fades into the library of pleasant memories?”
Pops thought about it for a second and then opined “The only way you will ever know is when you see her again. If that spark that existed while you were on the cruise still builds a flame.”
Three weeks later I found myself hustling through customs at Tom Jobim International Airport in Rio De Janiero hoping for fire.