A first-time Commonweal blog entry for me, and while in future entries I’ll take up books, politics, movies (I’ve been one of your reviewers for fifteen years now) or whatever, today I’ll be more personal. Right now it’s 5:30 AM, I’ve got a cup of coffee, and I want to convey that moment when you feel your family’s life gathering its breath for the summer to come. We’re an early-rising bunch (and early to bed -- alas!); my wife Molly is out walking the dogs, and our daughter Larkin, who recently finished third grade, is asleep in her room with her friend Fiona in the top bunk bed. A sleepover!
I’m turning fifty-six, and for most of my friends the kid sleepover era is long gone. But Molly and I got started late at all this; she was almost forty, and I almost fifty, when Larkin was born. Thus we’re wildly out of synch with most people our age -- as I was reminded at my recent thirty-fifth college reunion, where many of my classmates were fresh from their kids’ college graduations. Anyway, do you remember what it was like when you were up early and your child was still asleep, with a sleepover pal? The silence is blissful! You have that satisfying sense of being a temporary custodian of precious lives, which really is the essence of being a parent.
I spent a few minutes on the front porch, drinking coffee and waiting for the newspaper guy to deliver the Times. We have a family of rabbits living somewhere in our yard (in Hartford, Conn.), and they’ve gotten sufficiently inured to people that they barely look up when you appear. So I watched Brer Rabbit munch for a while. Our newspaper delivery guy is a thirtyish-year-old man who delivers the paper by hurling it from his moving car, without slowing down. This is mortal peril for my tiger lilies, and I keep meaning to ask him to aim for the lawn, not the front walk. But by the time I amble down into the yard, he has roared on. And I hesitate to mar his business plan, anyway.
My mother died nine years ago, when Larkin was just six months old, and after that I took up gardening. My mom was a skilled and joyous gardener, and I’d always intended to spend some time with her in her garden and learn the tools and tricks of the thing. And then she was gone, and I regretted not having done it.
So starting my own gardens (mostly flowers but some veggies too) was a belated way to make it up, and to maintain the kind of conversation that you do with your parents once they’re gone -- the way you still hear your mother or father’s voice, as if he or she were right there with you. Here are those tiger lilies.
I’m not very good at gardening – I make a lot of novice mistakes -- but you can always pick up tips from friends, glean stuff from the Internet, and blunder on. And you end up with all that beauty around you. I love seeing those lilies burst up every season, as reliable as the season itself. Hartford has a great deal of poverty and the whole array of related ills, and the efforts of gardeners across the city really help lift civic spirits, especially in some neighborhoods where those spirits are pretty bedraggled.
At my college reunion, each of us was given the curious gift of a burled wood cane. Apparently this represents the revival of a 19th century tradition in which college upperclassmen would put aside their freshman “beanies” and receive the cane as a mark of distinction. Among my mates in the Class of 1980 there was some nervous chortling about the suitability of giving ornamental walking aids to an age group for whom such aids will all too soon be functional. Take me, for instance. I had both my hips replaced last year. My classmates might not have guessed that from my nimble appearance on the dance floor at the reunion (well, at least I didn’t hurt myself). Yet sure enough, two days ago, suffering a bout of iliopsoar tendinitis following a strenuous day of golf and gardening, I used the cane for several hours -- non-ironically, non-ornamentally, and with much sighing and groaning.
The golf game was a rare get-together with my father, who is eighty-seven. A long-retired surgeon who lives in Tucson, he has recently been diagnosed with bladder cancer, and is waiting to find out how bad it is. The wait must be excruciating, and he’s filling it in with a lot of activity. “I actually feel great!” he said, as we teed off. Our game is always amusing. My father was an accomplished athlete all his life, but only took up golf when he turned seventy; as for me, my golf swing bears the relation to a real golfer’s swing that the Taliban does to art. But we muddle through, with a lot of joking along the way.
When I’m not with my father, I still think of him as a handsome and athletic man at the peak of his powers, and it rarely fails to startle me to see him stooped and fragile. He has an unsinkable spirit, but hunched stiffly over what he euphemistically refers to as “the advanced tees”-- “you mean the ladies’ tees, right Dad?” I tease him – he is unmistakably a very old man. Then again, I think of myself as--well, definitely not that gray-haired portly guy with the scars on his hips that I see in the bathroom mirror. My father and I live on opposite sides of the country, and I can probably count on two hands the remaining number of times we will see each other in this life. It’s not a thought I welcome. But I have kept it in mind as a way of living my time with him as fully as I can.
It’s now 6:30 and I should go. A full day of writing and editing lies ahead, then packing up for our annual two-week excursion to a cabin in the woods of Vermont. My daughter just appeared, bleary eyed. “Dad, I went to the bathroom, but now I’m afraid that when I climb back up to the top bunk, I’ll step on Fiona and wake her up.”
“Lark, can’t you use the ladder?”
“It’s covered up by my bookshelf, remember?”
Ah, yes. The one that contains her complete collections of The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, The Bobbsey Twins, and The Happy Hollisters. (Did I mention that we are raising our daughter almost entirely on a diet of wildly outdated cultural materials?)
“Dad, can you maybe lift me up?”
It’s the least a dad can do. And this morning, at least, I don’t even have to use my cane.