Climbing the Steps

“Do you think of your life?”


I couldn’t ask, because we don’t talk that way. But I watched his eyes squint nonetheless.


“Do you think of your life, Dad?” The words seeps from my fingers instead. It’s the only way to get them down. They’re not something I say out loud.


It used to be we couldn’t talk that way simply because he wasn’t home much. A business trip, a move, a plan of some sort. He felt best in motion; most alive I supposed. Less likely to think about…death? Whatever it was, he couldn’t sit still. I began to imagine that if he sat immobile for any length of time, he’d fade away, slip through life.


He sits more now, and I pretend not to notice.


He calls weekly with news of a death in the family, a cancer, a sudden illness. My Uncle Smitty choked during lunch, suffered cardiac arrest, and died a week later. He wasn’t much younger than my dad; we send condolences and flowers and wonder:


“Do you think of your life?”


His best friend heard from the oncologist. The lung cancer howls from a safe distance. Today, he’s OK. I look through mustard yellow photo albums; he and my dad lounge against one of the cars of the day, smoking, laughing, living.


I don’t think I want the photos from now; the needles in the arm, the shadows in the eyes.


My dad lives with my step-mom in a condo complex filled with old people. He became president of the condo association because everyone kept dying, and they couldn’t keep anyone in office for long. He laughs when he says this; always a joke on his lips, a pretend heart attack for laughs, a brush-off of imminent death.


During a recent joke, a darkness flits across his face, a temporary jolt, a pause in the laughter, a realization we both refuse to acknowledge.


So we watch TV. His old friends are gone: Jackie Gleason, Bob Hope, John Wayne, but there’s a show on PBS about country music.


Even his beloved Kenny Rogers looks different.


He falls asleep in the recliner, a comforting image from my childhood, when his loud snoring assured me he was home.


In between business trips, my dad reluctantly visited the doctors my mom made him see. In the days and hours before his appointments, he yelled and resisted and teased, “If I’m going to die, I don’t want to know it.”


But there was the diabetes and the high blood pressure; the ulcers and the dangerous cholesterol. The chicken-fried steak for breakfast and the homemade french fries for dinner, the forgetting to take his pills and the blood sugar blackouts.


My healthy mom died before he did.


I don’t know if that’s what causes his shadows.


Last year, he began sending his children stories. Long-forgotten and unspoken. Our lineage, our hometown in Norway, great-grandma Josie’s predilection for liquor. One email, titled simply “Mom and I” recounted the story of how they met in such vivid detail I read through tears. It began:


Hi Guys,

Seeing as I am on a roll, I thought you guys might like to hear how Mom and I met and moved into marriage. This is a tough one…


I wonder what it was like for him to write knowing he’s all that’s left of him and her.


Last month, my dad returned from his childhood home in Sparta, Wisconsin. My step-mom’s sister-in-law passed away a month earlier and her house needed to be cleared out. No family close by was much alive to complete the job. He and my step-mom spent three weeks sorting and cataloging and dumping. They managed to see some of their high school friends while in town and my dad called me on the way home, melancholy.


“Not many of us are healthy anymore” he told me.


I knew better than to respond. He doesn’t talk that way too much, and I opened my heart to give his words some space.


A beat, not even a minute later, and he began to joke again; but I’d glimpsed the shadow.


I thought of all this the other day when I watched a movie that took place in the 70s. The soundtrack evoked that first stingpunch of summer love, the must of the gymnasium during P.E., the cloudiness of marshmallow fluff. My soul alternated between flying and crying. So many days, so many days…turning into…another kind of day. A year, a decade, a mustard yellow photo album.


Or the dry bite of bread pudding every day for a year when money grew tight, the dark smudge of newspaper ink smeared on fingers picking up news of World War 11, the phantom ache of a sister plucked by cancer in the middle of the night.


A million things like that, singular and collective; each of us alone, each of us the same with the thought, with the letters, with the shadows. My dad’s unmouthed questions are mine now and on it will go. One day my daughter may write them like me and on it will go. On and on and on.


But today is today, until it’s tomorrow.


Do you think of your life?


22 Responses to “Climbing the Steps”

  1. Momo Fali says:

    My heart is heavy. I can’t bring myself to ask my parents that question.

  2. Ali says:

    What a thought-invoking post…beautifully written, as always! I don’t just wonder about my elders and whether THEY think of their lives, but I think of my own, as well, and wonder which memories I will share with my kids, and how…and which ones I will never get the chance to share.

  3. Casey says:

    Wow. I’m speechless. I check in with your blog from time to time (new to San Diego). Your writing is fantastic. I love this post.

    I don’t have a relationship with my parents, sadly. But, I knew my grandparents well. I’ll take that.

  4. christy says:

    Oh man. I do think about it, and I don’t dare ask anyone I love about this. I don’t know why, I guess I just can’t handle it. Absolutely lovely read though – I’m glad you shared it.

  5. Beautiful writing. That really hit me. I lost so many wonderful family stories when my mom and her sister died. I am really grateful I coerced my dad into writing most of his autobiography. That’s a little piece of him that I and his grandsons will have forever.

  6. Alexandra says:

    I could talk of this forever.

    I have a mother who won’t speak of her life.

    My history end with her.

  7. Shary says:

    Thank you for this post. I talk to my parents often and most of our conversations are about family news, but from time to time, we talk about what really matters. I’m inspired to aim for that more often.

  8. Playing4 says:

    Absolutely beautiful! I Love your work! Thank You.

  9. green girl in wisconsin says:

    This post makes me sad. I have no ties to any past, but thankfully I have a mother in law who is passing along her life with our kids. But my branch of the tree? Dead. Withered and chopped off.

  10. Cheap Sally says:

    So heart-wrenching. Thank you for opening up and sharing this.

  11. Dennis says:

    Makes your heart ache. I spent some time with a family member by his bed recently. He told me stories about all the best memories in his life. Sad to think that he’s not making very many beautiful memories anymore. So very sad.

  12. Mama Mary says:

    So much I want to write but I need to go find the Kleenex box. And actually, I can’t even find the words. Only ones I can choke out through my fingers are: I love you.

  13. Monica says:

    How poignant. It’s important to talk about these things while you can, but very difficult. Both my parents died years ago. My mother who was younger, died first. My father was already very ill and I remember talking to him, and he kept repeating the same thing. He wanted to die and there was nothing me or my siblings could do. Soon enough he got his wish. He just saw no point to going on without my mother. Thanks for sharing your story.

  14. Jeebus Deb, you brought it. Wow. Amazingly written. I’m blown away. Truly.


  15. Jessica says:

    yet again, brilliant. My dad returns from Canada and each time says the same thing, “all my friends are dead or demented”. He’s 84.

  16. It was a little like reading Edgar Allen Poe… you captured it so well. I think I might call my mom tomorrow. We haven’t talked in months.

  17. Thought provoking, sad, and just fantastic writing by you Deb. Makes me think how short it really is for everyone.

  18. Sugar Jones says:

    Wow. What a gift to get those letters from your dad. I have a few old letters from my dad. Of regret mostly. I wish we would have had more time to talk about life.

  19. Nichole says:

    It was beautiful and haunting when you read it at CA, and it’s every bit as amazing here.
    So beautifully done, my friend.

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