There was something so indefatigably optimistic about her, but not in the cloying way of silly women - she was pragmatic and sharp as a tack. She volunteered in the on-site health clinic of her retirement community, and took me on a tour there once - pushing her walker purposefully down hall pointing out the abundant sunlit windows, parakeet station and kind nurses.
With a grand arm sweep, she gestured down the hall behind her. “See, I want you to know that it’s a happy place.” And she punched the door open with her walker and directed me into the dining room where she instructed me to select anything I wanted and gracefully avoided the ‘gossipy’ table.
The stories she told and the times we had are part of another story. There was something on her mind that she wanted to say. And she didn’t want to chance forgetting. I found several post-its and signs throughout the apartment designed to prompt her memory - things like “take vitamin”, “dinner in the freezer”, then this one... “Heather - talk.”
And I knew that she wanted to talk to me about my father.
For years we’ve simultaneously known him, she as a mother, me as a daughter - and it was my mistake to believe that we knew the same man the same way.
I know now that a mother loves her son in ways that allow for the kind of grace and mercy no one else can understand. Her expectations of him began first with the fervent desire he’d survive within her own body, grow and comes to life - be placed safely in her arms, then replaced by a different hope that would wake her every hour through the night to check his breathing, to make certain he was still with her.
So it was as a mother she watched her son walk through a dark valley, often alone. In all the years that my father and I did not speak, she would never push or question - she would talk about the ‘terrible illness’ - the one I didn’t quite believe in, the one I didn’t understand. This made it easy to brush aside the idea that some responsibility resided with me - to understand, to reconnect, to try harder. I had done all of these things, many times. Let me remind you, let me point out the ways, the times. Let me show you I am not to blame.
But I was visiting her now - in her home that would someday soon be closed up as she moved to the memory center next, not as a volunteer but as a patient. It wasn’t right then - but it was the kind of imminent that accompanies the age of 82.
She remembered. And she talked. This time, I listened. And let her tell me about her son.
It wasn’t hard to made her a promise that I would try to make things ok. And I went home to my new husband, and the promise came with me - tucked far back in the luggage underneath lists of things to decorate, work projects to be attended to, life to be lived. And time passed.
Then one day I stopped pretending to forget, and kept the promise I’d been meaning to. It was a familiar re-start, like many letters sent before. Dear Dad. This time, it included new details like ‘married’ and ‘happy’ and... ‘pregnant’. Then send.
Perhaps I should have been surprised to learn that his current job was located no more than an hour from where I lived. But, I wasn’t. Promises have a funny way of being kept, despite the promiser.
He would come to meet for lunch then, it was settled. He was so happy to hear from me, it was said. We
did not speak of years and years past - but you could hear the echo, a hollow space where things that never were clatter around. Like the pain from a phantom limb, you’re never certain where to grasp, or how to fix it.
There were things I couldn’t give him back. My arm through his down a church aisle - leaning on my escort, my daddy. Days and times passed - things that once happened and mattered, then were forgotten forever, important things lost because time made them irrelevant. Things that might have made him laugh, made him proud if he had been there to know about them. If he’d tried harder. If I’d tried harder. But we hadn’t.
And there were things he couldn’t give me back. But what I had realized as a wife, as a mommy-to-be, with the help of a husband who was wise in the art of forgiveness - was that looking back did nothing. Nothing good, nothing important, nothing new.
I let her know, of course. I called my Gram and told her that a visit had been arranged. And she didn’t say, “well about time.” She didn’t even not say it. There was not a whiff of the sentiment. She just said, “Oh?” in the same voice as when I told her I wanted to move to Europe or that I met the man of my dreams. It was an open ended question - a simple waiting for me to fill in the empty space with what I was going to do next. She always made me want to complete the sentence.
And - I make a guess here, but it’s a good one - my Gram kept a promise she had made to herself. She’d be there to see this day. My father's kind and lovely wife flew down by herself in the morning then back in the afternoon with my grandmother. When I opened the door the day they arrived (after taking a few deep breaths in my closet), she was the quintessential hostess on my own front door step - making everyone at ease.
“Oh Darling,” she smiled with arms spread wide, hands coming in to grip my face, head tipped up in delight. It’s the kind of welcome you know you could never possibly deserve, but were the recipient of nonetheless.
Then my father, smiling the smile I recognized, eyes the same blue as hers, mine.
And I opened the door and said, “Come in.”