Swant’s Service

 

“Well, thanks for meeting with me. It was good talking to you.” The realtor took out a business card and gave it to Charlie Swant who glanced at it, already having forgotten the guy’s name. He then extended his hand and Charlie reluctantly shook it.

“Well…Ok then,” he said, not know what else to add. He certainly wasn’t going to lie and tell the guy that, Yeah, it was good to meet you, too, or Thanks for stopping by or any other pleasantry that most people would have responded with.

The realtor just looked at him, getting the hint. The old man was nuts anyway. Who wouldn’t want to take the one and a half million dollars he’d offered to buy the decrepit gas station the guy owned? Swant’s Service. What a stupid name. No one he knew ever took their cars there anyway. Why trust their precious automobiles to a grease monkey like Charlie Swant when they could just as easily go to one of the luxury car dealerships ten miles down the road? The realtor waved and turned away. “I’ll stay in touch,” he said over his shoulder while stepping into his Cadillac. “But I’m never bringing my car here, no matter what,” he muttered as he drove away. Charlie watched him, noting the almost inaudible high pitched squeal in the engine was probably a bearing in the water pump starting going out. Good riddance, he thought to himself, as he turned to go back to work. He had an oil change to get to and the day wasn’t getting any younger.

Swant’s Service was built by his dad, Clarence, in 1942, the same year Charlie was born. Clarence suffered polio when he was young and was unable to serve in World War II so he decided to do the next best thing, serve his country on the home front by doing all he could to keep America’s cars and trucks running. “I’ll provide my customer’s with the best service I possibly can,” he said when asked about the name of his gas station. “We’ll sell more than just gasoline. We’ll sell reliability and dependability. Our customers will never be dissatisfied with the service we provide, I can promise you that. In fact, they’ll probably tell their friends.” Which they did and Swant’s Service was off and running.

The station stood on a small piece of property on Willow Way, a quiet, shady street that ran one block off Orchard Boulevard, the main road through the small town of Long Lake. Across the street from the station was the cozy, well maintained home Charlie shared with Mary, his wife of fifty-two years. He had a good life. Why would he consider changing things right now by selling out to some fly-by-night realtor with a fancy car and too high an opinion of himself? Well his daughter, Sophia, could think of a few good reasons, telling her dad he should sell the station and use the money to, as she put it, “Retire or travel or something,” but he couldn’t see himself doing anything like that. Not now, anyway.

He had just entered the service bay when his phone buzzed. It was a text from Larry, his oldest son. Kids on the way. Charlie texted back that he’d be waiting for them. He went to his work bench and checked his tools. Everything was in order. The kids were a group of eighth graders from Riverside Middle School, twenty five miles east in downtown Minneapolis, where Larry was assistant principal. They were considered ‘high risk’, having had trouble adjusting to life in Minnesota. To try and help them Larry and Charlie had worked out a plan: Charlie would mentor the kids and teach them about taking care of cars, sort of like the automotive maintenance shop classes that used to be offered in junior high schools years ago. Times were different now. Budgets were tight and shop classes weren’t around anymore. The kids were attending by their own choice having given up a study period to learn what went into taking care of an automobile.

In the beginning Charlie was under no illusions about what he was getting himself into. He knew most of the kids just wanted to get away from school and “Hang out,” as they were apt to say, sneak cigarettes, and goof off. But from day one Charlie wouldn’t have any of it. Twelve had started the class. He was strict but fair yet a few just couldn’t handle the discipline. He was down to nine now, having weeded out those who wouldn’t abide by his simple rules: treat others with respect, work hard, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. He didn’t admit it very often, but he thoroughly enjoyed being with them, giving the kids a two hour block of time every week. During the first meeting he’d written their names down, then found he had to refer to his list often in those initial weeks, needing the extra prompting. It had been challenging back then but he’d worked at it. Now, of course, he knew them all by heart: Abshir, Amir, Cabdulle, Daleel, Fuaad, Gaani, Idiris, Kaahi and Kamal. They were young Somali’s living in a high rise housing complex in the heart of Minneapolis. Today they’d help him with the oil change and then he’d supervise the project they were working on, restoring a classic Chevrolet, getting it ready for Long Lake’s Fourth of July parade. Charlie would drive it, and the kids were going to ride with him.

He whistled to himself, using his shop cloth to wipe down his tools. Sell his service station for a million and a half dollars? Never. Not on Charlie Swant’s watch. Then he turned his head, hearing a horn beeping. Jerry Larson, the school bus driver, was pulling in to drop off the young Somali’s. Charlie smiled and waved, walking out to meet them. Time to get to work.

 

 

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Leatherwork

Pete Samuelson undid the twine and rolled out the leather onto his worktable. His practiced eyes scanned the surface noting the stretch marks, deciding at that very moment to incorporate them into the project he was starting. Before he began, however, he took a moment to think about the cow whose hide he now had in front of him. The animal had once been alive, and if it hadn’t spent its time strolling imaginary hills munching on sweet, green clover, at least it once had been a living breathing creature of the earth. He felt in his heart a reverence for the animal and he bent his head for a moment in a silent prayer of ‘thanks’. Then he began to work.

He was a retired shoe repair man, or ‘cobbler’, as he sometimes let slip if the moment was right. Working with leather was in his blood and he’d been working with it all his life; which might be considered odd, since he grew up in the city, far from any farms or ranches or small towns that may have fostered his craft. Instead, Pete was first exposed to leather crafting in junior high shop class back in the late fifties. His first project had been a bookmark and by the time he was finished he was hooked. His parents, sensing his enthusiasm, bought him a Tandy Leather Making kit for Christmas that year. He fate was sealed by the tools of the trade: a swivel knife for craving, stamping tools for creating intricate designs and a multiuse rawhide mallet.

In high school, while others got jobs at restaurants or gas stations, Pete found work at a Xavier’s Shoe Repair in downtown Minneapolis. Xavier Dukakas, the owner, was a second generation immigrant from Greece. He was a robust man, short in stature and long in enthusiasm, who took a liking to the skinny kid who happened to love working with leather as much as he did. Mr. Dukakas (the name he preferred to go by) taught Pete everything he knew about the craft of shoe repair.

“Here, you hold the shoe firmly but gently,” he told Pete more than once when he was learning to finish the edge of a sole of a shoe on the burnishing wheel. “Like an egg,” he said, pantomiming massaging  one in his hands. Then he laughed, “Or your girlfriend,” he added grinning, watching Pete’s ears turn red.

Pete finally got the knack, learning from the older man that most things worth doing well required practice and practice required patience. In truth, Mr. Dukakas was much more than an employer, he was a mentor and Pete worked for him until old age forced his retirement. He sold the business to Pete for a fair price and Pete continued to run it until he retired at the age of sixty-six. He then sold the shop to an industrious young couple who wanted to use the space to start their own micro-brewery. Life went on.

Shortly after he retired, Pete was outside working in the garden he and his wife, Emma, maintained with loving care. He was just transplanting some hosta when she came up to him.

“Look what I came across in the storage room. Your old leather kit.”

Pete stiffly got to his feet, wiping his hands on his overalls. “I haven’t seen this in years.”

“You know you could set up a work space in the furnace room” she said. “You always enjoyed doing your leatherwork.”

The moment he took the lid off the box memories came flooding back: the projects he’d made, the aroma of the leather, the smell of the dye and feel of the hide. He smiled at his wife, “Good idea.”

He’s had his workshop now for five years. He has website where he sells his ‘creations’, as he calls them: purses, journal covers and cases. He gladly accepts orders, like the one he is working on today, a case for an iPhone 6s. He takes a tag board template he has made and uses an awl to mark out an outline on the leather. He uses a razor blade knife to cut out the pattern. Then he trims the edges with a skiving tool and punches out holes so he can eventually hand lace the case together. Today’s work ends with him dying the leather deep violet, the color the customer requested. Tomorrow he will apply neatsfoot oil and the following day he will finish it with caranuba cream and hand stitch the case together. Then he will ship it to the customer. He loves the steps in the process and he loves working with his hands. He loves the feel of the leather. He loves the aroma in his workshop. He loves it all.

He is setting the piece aside to dry when the back door opens. He hears voices and he starts to smile. Then there are footsteps coming down the stairs and he turns to greet his grandson.

“Caleb,” he says, eyes bright with affection, “How’s my boy?” Caleb is eleven years old and has been helping Pete for over a year. He’s shown the same love of leather Pete had at that age. Amazing but true, in an age of electronics, is this kid who likes to work with his hands.

“I’m good, grandpa,” Caleb says, and then spies the cell phone case. “New project?”

“Yep, it came in today.” He sees the disappointment in Caleb’s eyes.

“Oh… I wish I could have helped.”

Pete smiles. “You can,” he watches Caleb’s eyes light up. “You definitely can. The order was for two.”

“Yea,” his grandson says happily. “Thanks, grandpa.”

Then Caleb carefully selects a piece of leather and lays it out of the worktable. He runs his hands over the hide and closes his eyes and is quiet for a few moments. When he is ready he looks at his granddad and smiles. Then they start to work.

 

 

 

Remembrance Day

This little story is a reminder to myself to never take the people in my life I am close to for granted.

“Allie, come here. Look at this.” The old man pointed. “It’s a special kind of wild flower called a trillium.” He pointed again, showing the little girl. She fell to her knees, face only inches from the white petals.

“Pretty,” she said, and bent closer to smell.

“There’s usually not much of an aroma,” the old man, said, as he rather stiffly dropped to his knees, too, joining his granddaughter.

“Grandpa, smell it,” she said, moving over to make room for him. “It smells good.”

He bend down and took a whiff of the imaginary scent. “Yes,” he said, looking with affection at the little girl by his side. “It does smell good.”

They had just come out of a small woodland area near the park where they’d been swinging and were heading back to Allie’s parent’s home only a few doors down. A crow flew over. The little girl looked up and recited the name ‘crow’. Then she spied a robin. “Look at that,” she said, pointing excitedly, “Rrrrr…rrrr…Robin.” She looked at him and smiled. Their little joke about how he’d taught her two years ago how to identify the early spring bird with r’s for robin and red breast. God, the affection he felt toward this little girl; his son’s daughter, the youngest of he and his wife’s three kids.

Quickly she stood up. “Look grandpa. A doggy.”

He stiffly got to his feet and turned. Coming toward them was a lady in a blue sweat suit walking a small white dog who was straining at its leash. “Stand behind me,” he said to Allie, protecting her. To the lady he said, “Nice dog. What kind is it?”

She gave him an odd look, sizing him up before answering, “Westie.”

He turned to his granddaughter. “Can you say ‘Westie’, honey?”

She didn’t answer, only watched as the lady and the dog walked by, hurrying a little, it seemed to the old man. “Did you like the doggy?” he asked her.

“I did. He was so cute,” she exclaimed, smiling. “I loved it.”

“Maybe someday your mom and dad can get you a doggy, honey,” he said, starting to walk.

She reached up and took his hand. “Will you get one for me? Please.”

He smiled to himself before answering. “Well, it’s really up to your mom and dad.” Then he looked at her, and, seeing the disappointment in her eyes, quickly added, “But, we’ll see, honey. We’ll see.”

“Look grandpa, tulips,” she called out, pointing. “Hurry.” She ran ahead to the next yard.

The old guy finally caught up to her. She was kneeling down again, smelling the flower. “Two, two, two lips,” he said, coming up to her.

She laughed. “No grandpa, tu…lips,” she said, emphasizing each of the two syllables. He smiled, remembering how much fun it had been teaching her letters and words throughout her young life. She moved to a different tulip. “Look grandpa, your favorite color, orange.”

“Yes, it is, honey. What’s your favorite color again?” he asked, pretending he’d forgotten.

“Purple and pink,” she said, standing up and poking at him. “You’re so silly.”

They started walking again. She was six years old, of average height and (he thought) too skinny. She was fun loving and had a character all her own. Her mother let her dress any way she wanted and today, when he’d picked her up after kindergarten, she wore a white and black short sleeve dress covered with pink hearts over yellow and red striped tights. On her feet were purple socks and pink tennis shoes. Her long red hair fell past her shoulders and freckles dotted her checks. When they were together they talked and laughed and she was a true joy in his life.

“Let’s go into your folk’s back yard and check on the garden,” he suggested.

“Sure,” she agreed and ran off, him following as fast as he could, which wasn’t saying much.

His son, Steve, was looking out the window into the back yard. “There’s dad,” he called to Emma, his wife.

“Finally,” she said, somewhat annoyed. “He’s lived with us for fifteen years. Today of all days he should know we’d be eating by 6:00 pm.

Steve checked the clock in the kitchen. “He still has a few minutes.”

“What’s he doing out there anyway?”

“Looks like he’s dancing.”

“What?”

“Dancing.” Steve shook his head and sighed in resignation. “I’ll go get him.”

“Please hurry. I’m putting the food on the table.”

In the dining room were Steve and Emma’s other three kids and their kids. This was their Remembrance Day. The day they got together to remember the short life of Alisha Ann Drayton, their youngest daughter who, eighteen years ago today, had died of acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Steve went downstairs and out the back door. “Hey dad,” he called. “Come on in. Dinner’s on the table.”

Out in the yard, the old man stopped playing tag with Allie and turned toward his son. “Ok. Just give me a minute.”

“Sure, dad,” Steve said, walking over to his father and putting his arm around his shoulder. “You doing Ok?”

“Yeah, son, I am.” He was quiet for a moment. “I just miss her, you know. We were close. She was one of the best things that ever happened to me.” Then added, “Not just today, but every day is Remembrance Day for me,” his eyes suddenly becoming moist.

Steve sighed and gave his dad a hug. “Me, too, dad,” he said. “Me, too.”

They walked slowly toward the back door. Over his shoulder the old man turned and waved at Allie, standing in the middle of the yard. The wind blew through her hair and the sun caught her freckles just right. She smiled at him and waved back, locked forever in the old man’s memory. “I’ll see you soon,” he said to her as he turned and started for the door.

“What’d you say, dad?” Steve asked.

“Nothing,”  the old man said. Then he turned and waved at her one more time before finally going inside.

 

 

The Cribbage Game

Find out what Tim does when his long lost father, who is dying, contacts him.

Tim shuffled the cards while watching Fred. Or his dad. He still wasn’t sure what to call him. The old man was propped up in his hospital bed, having been moved into the hospice care wing of the nursing home the week before last. The same week Tim had been notified of the move. Also, the same week he had also been notified that the father he thought had been dead all these years was, in fact, alive. It was fifty years ago that Tim, then twenty, and his mom and his younger brothers and sisters had been told by Irv Lindenfelter, his dad’s best friend, that Fred, who had divorced their mom and moved to San Francisco, had gone missing. Vanished without a trace, was the way it was put to them at the time. At first Tim and his family figured that Fred has just taken off and gone fishing or camping, his two fondest hobbies. But as time passed that notion proved to be unverifiable. He didn’t return to his job at Tillotson and MaKray, the advertising firm he worked for. His phone went unanswered. Bills piled up in his mail box of the apartment where he lived. Finally the police were called in. Days turned to weeks and then to months with no answers forthcoming. Finally, the missing person case of Fredrick Clarence Beverly was put on the back burner and eventually filed away as “Missing-Unsolved”. So that was that.

Fifty years was a long time to learn to forget and that’s exactly what everyone had done. Tim and his brothers and sisters had gone on with their lives, having adjusted to life without their father anyway because of the divorce. After all, Tim, the oldest, was fifteen when his dad had left his mother and the life they had in Minneapolis and moved out to San Francisco to “start over” as he had put it. The year had been 1964 and the loss of their father had devastated the family. But after about a week of moping around and collectively hanging their heads, their mother, Ann, had rallied the kids and told them to pull themselves together and quit feeling sorry for themselves.

“We are going to get through this,” she had said, directing her fiery gaze at Tim and his brothers, Steven and Larry, and sisters, Kathy and Susan. “And we are going to be better because of it.”

Their mom went back to work, the kids adjusted to the change in the household and they learned to live without having their father around. Life, indeed, did get better. For a while, Fred maintained contact with his children with the occasional phone call and a card sent on their birthday with a twenty dollar bill in it. He never visited. Over the course of the first few years the calls diminished in frequency until they only came once a year, at birthday time, piggy-backing on the birthday card and twenty dollar bill. After five years, Tim had pretty much put his father out of his mind. Then he went missing and Tim found himself strangely unaffected and detached.

“I really don’t think that much about him anymore,” he told his mom. “Honestly, I just don’t care all that much.” He paused and looked out the window. They’d been sitting in the kitchen, drinking ice tea together. Earlier, Ann had returned home and shared the news of their father’s disappearance with her children. A detective with the SFP had contacted her at work that day and told her what had happened. As she told them the news, all the kids had just sat and listened with a somewhat detached mood. Then they’d all talked about it for a while before the younger kids had gone their separate ways. Tim stayed behind with his mom to talk. They were close and had a good relationship. “I never felt I had the chance to know him, anyway,” Tim added, somewhat cryptically.

Ann nodded. “I never want to disparage your father,” she said, sipping from her glass, “But he was a hard man to get to know.”

Tim looked at her. She was a thin woman of medium height in her mid forties, her shoulder length auburn hair streaked with gray. Her dark brown eyes were kind looking and had a tint of green in them. Her reading glasses were pushed to the top of her head. She wore a flowered sun dress and comfortable, canvas shoes and was unwinding after a long day working as secretary for a local manufacturing company. Outside the birds were singing as the sun settled toward the western horizon. It was August, the height of summer in Minnesota.

“Do you want to sit out back, mom?” Tim asked. “Get some fresh air?”

Ann smiled at her son. “Yes, I’d like that.”

Forty one years later, at his mom’s funeral, Tim was asked by his brothers and sisters to speak about their mother. He had done so, delivering a heartfelt eulogy. Everyone had appreciated his remembrances but, being honest with himself, he never felt he had been able to capture her essence, the strength of character she exhibited throughout her life, as well as the tenderness and compassion she showed to not only her children and grandchildren, but others as well. She knew many people and her life was one of giving to friends and family as well as caring for those less fortunate than her. She had remarried five years after their father had gone missing, out lived her second husband and died in her sleep in her apartment at the age of eighty-seven. That was five years ago. He thought of her with fondness every day.

When Fred’s lawyer called telling him about his father, that he was alive but dying and wanted to see his kids again, Tim was flabbergasted to say the least. He had gotten a hold of Steve and Larry, and then called Kathy and Susan. All his siblings still lived within the seven county metropolitan area and they decided to met and talk about the news at Tim’s house in Long Lake, a small town twenty miles west of downtown Minneapolis. The meeting took place five days after the lawyer had contacted him so they all had had time to think about the request and they all had opinions on the matter. They talked for an entire afternoon. The upshot was that no one wanted to see Fred.

“I’ve completely moved on,” was how Kathy, the oldest daughter and now nearly sixty five, had put it. “I can’t tell you how little I think about him and how little he means to me.”

All the others pretty much had the same opinion except for Larry, the youngest brother, who offered that he’d just as soon put a pillow over the old man’s face rather than talk to him. So there was still some hurt and anger after all those years, even though, for the most part everyone had gone on with their lives and learned to live without their father, or “Biological Father” as Susan put it, clearly distancing herself from the possibility of seeing the man.

In fact, that’s how Tim’s siblings talked about their father: referring to him in their discussions as Fred, not dad or father or any other term of endearment common in families with a close relationship to their parents. Nope, Fred it was. A faded, distant memory of someone who left his family behind, eventually severing all contact with them. All contact that was until now, all these years later, when for some unknown and completely unfathomable reason, long lost Fred decided to try to come back and become part of their lives again. A vote was taken whether to see him or not: Steven, no. Larry, a resounding no. Kathy, no. Susan, no. The verdict was unanimous. Everyone looked at Tim who hesitated. The years and their family’s circumstance had drawn Tim and his younger brothers and sisters close together. Naturally, they didn’t always agree, and big topic s like politics or religion were discussed more for fun than with the hope of changing anyone’s views, but there was a closeness between them and a mutual respect for each other that included their differences. As Kathy put it once during a family get together, “We may disagree, but at least we know we have each other and can count on each other. We’ll always have each other’s back.” Which was true. Tim couldn’t count the number of times he’d helped with moving or baby sitting or what have you. And the help had be reciprocated. It was just something you did. Because it was family. Their mother had taught them that.

So why it was that Tim said what he said, he wasn’t really sure. But Steve and Larry and Kathy and Susan all looked at him at first like he was nuts, but then, like maybe they understood, when he said, “Well, I think I’m going out there to see him. I can’t tell you why, or what I hope to get out of it, but I just feel like it’s something I have to do. Or should do. I don’t know, maybe finally close a chapter or get some sort resolution or something like that.” He stopped and looked around at the table where they were all sitting. They were in the dining room, drinking coffee and munching on cookies Susan had made. Tim and his wife Emma had a calico cat who took this moment to jump up on his lap and when he stroked it’s fur the cat started purring. He smiled and looked around the table. “I guess it’s not really closure I want,” he said, amending part of what he’d just said, “I did that long ago. I guess I just want to see why the guy left and what he’s been doing with his life.”

They talked about it for over an hour. No one tried to dissuade Tim from his decision, but they were curious as to why he wanted to do this. Kathy was afraid he might open up old wounds. Steve offered that he didn’t realize his older brother had such a masochistic side. Of course, no one knew what would happen but the general consensus was that whatever happened, it couldn’t be good. Tim, for his part, had no real strong answer to their concerns. Like he told Emma later that night as they got ready for bed. “It’s just something I feel I have to do.”

“Then do it,” Emma said, kissing him and rubbing him on the back. “Just don’t stay gone too long, though. I’ll miss you.”

Tim contacted Fred’s lawyer, the man who had contacted him in the first place, and arrangements were made. Fred was being cared for at Aurora Woods, an elderly care facility in Bellingham, Washington, roughly an hour and a half drive north of Seattle’s SeaTac airport. Prior to leaving Minneapolis, and with the lawyer’s help, Tim found a place to stay at a small but clean budget motel across the highway from Puget Sound and about five miles from Aurora Woods. He booked himself in for a week, not having any idea how long he was going to be staying. The visit could be short and he could be gone in a day, who knew? A week seemed reasonable. The thought of seeing Fred made him extremely nervous at first, especially in the initial planning stages, but after a while he started looking forward to it, once he got used to the fact that it was really going to happen.

Tim was a former school teacher. He had taught high school English at Southwest High School in Minneapolis for forty years. He was now retired. In the summertime he loved to garden, but August was a relatively slow period with all of the plants firmly established, so it was easy for him to free up the time to make the trip west. Just a few days after he had made his decision at the family meeting, Tim stood on the front steps and hugged Emma good bye. Then he got in the cab to the airport where he boarded his plane to Seattle. Once seated, the thought of seeing Fred caused his nerves to kick in every now and then, causing perspiration to break out on his forehead. Other than that, the flight was uneventful. Once in Seattle he picked up his rental car and drove up interstate 5 trying to adjust to his new surroundings. The day was sunny and mild. The air felt fresh and dry, not muggy like summers in Minnesota sometimes were. He’d never been to the west coast let alone the Pacific Northwest and was unprepared for the congestion and traffic. Interstate 5 was a crowded, five lane super highway and he forced himself to focus on his driving, only slightly aware of the scenery passing outside his window and the Cascade Mountains off in the distance on the horizon to his right. It had been two weeks since the lawyer had contacted him. One week since he and his siblings had talked and Tim had made his decision to visit Fred. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, surprised that he hands were shaking slightly. His motel on Puget Sound was called By-The-Bay. His map showed it coming up on the right in a few miles. He checked it watch. It was nearly dinner time. He’d see Fred tomorrow. He wasn’t hungry at all.

What do you say to the guy who walked out on you and your mom and brothers and sisters over fifty years ago? Tim had no idea. Fred’s lawyer, Arnold (“Call me Arnie”) actually helped. The next day he met Tim in the lobby of Aurora Woods. All in all the care facility was quite pleasant. It was relatively new, having be built five years earlier. To Tim’s mind it had a nice aroma inside, not institutional at all, more like a faint herbal scent. It wasn’t bad.

Arnie was about sixty years old, ten younger than Tim, and fit looking. His head was shaved and he was very tan. He wore beige slacks with a sharp crease, a white short-sleeve button up shirt, no tie, sandals with no socks-definitely sporting a casual look. He took his hat off as he shook Tim’s hand. It was a straw fedora and had a madras hat band. He smiled easily and his teeth were straight and white. He had the lean look of a long distance runner. Tim was prepared to dislike the guy on sight but couldn’t help being charmed when Arnie said, “I’ve never in my life done anything like this before. I can only imagine how you feel.” He was both honest and gracious and Tim found himself not minding him at all, maybe even starting to like him a little. “Let me show you to your dad’s room.” He pointed forward and started walking toward the elevator.

“I’d prefer to call him Fred, if you don’t mind.” Tim said, feeling like he was coming across a little formal and stiff, but wanting to establish some sort of guidelines or boundaries nevertheless.

Next to him Arnie nodded quickly, not missing a beat.”Yeah, I get that. You’re the boss. Fred it is.”

The hospice unit of Aurora Woods was on the second floor of the two floor facility. They took the elevator up, got off and turned left, Arnie leading the way. The doors were sealed to the entrance to the hall that housed the hospice wing. “You need a pass code to get in.” He punched in four numbers, the door clicked and he pushed through, holding the door open for Tim. They took an immediate left and when through another door. “This is the hospice wing,” Arnie said, lowering his voice to a whisper and looking around. “Mary is supposed to meet us. She’s in charge here and wanted to meet you. Ah, there she is.”

A trim woman in her fifties approached. She dark hair was cut short and streaked with gray. She wore a green tweed skirt and jacket over a cream colored blouse. She carried a clip board and smiled as she approached, putting out her hand as she got to the two men, acknowledging Arnie with a faint nod. They’d obviously met before. “I’m Mary,” she said, looking Tim square in the eyes. “You must be Tim.”

“I am,” he said, shaking her hand. She was confident but friendly. All of a sudden he became flustered. He realized the meeting with Fred was really going to take place and suddenly the whole thing seemed to be happening way too fast. Right up until now he thought he was ready for it. Maybe he wasn’t.

“Would you like to have a little talk before you see your father?” she asked. Whether she was aware of his discomfort or this was protocol, he didn’t know, but Tim gratefully accepted.

“I prefer to call him Fred, if you don’t mind,” he said, as Mary moved a few steps down the hall.

She looked over her shoulder at him, her eyes probing. Finally she spoke with a slight smile. “I understand.”

They moved to small conference room to the left of the entryway. Marv and Arnie sat down at a round table leaving two chairs empty. Mary opened a small refrigerator and took out three bottles of water which she placed in front of them. Then she sat down next to Tim, looking at her clip board.

“Your father, er, Fred, has been at Aurora woods for just over five years,” she said, turning to make eye contact with Tim. She had a firm, no-nonsense voice that also happened to be soft and pleasant. Tim appreciated her direct manner.

“I know some of his history,” Tim said. “Arnie filled me in.”

Mary glanced at Arnie and gave him a slight smile. Was there something going on between the two? Tim thought to himself. His eyes moved to the ring hand of each of them, bare on both accounts.

She settled back. “Do you have any questions for me, then?”

Tim blurted out what was foremost in his mind. “How long’s he got to live?” Then he caught himself. “Sorry. I didn’t mean it to come out like that.” He felt his ears reddening.

If Mary was shocked, she hid it well. “Of course,” she said, shifting slightly in her chair, “Let me fill you in on what the situation is with, er, Fred.”

“Arnie said he has congestive heart failure.”

“That’s correct. His heart is functioning at about thirty percent capacity and it’s very weak. He had a heart attack eight years ago which has contributed to its weakness.”

“Fluid builds up, right?” Tim had done some reading on the internet.

“That’s correct. Among other things it makes it difficult for his heart to pump the way it should.” She stopped and waited. When she saw Tim had no questions she went on. “He also has had a series of what we call mini-strokes. They have affected his thinking capacity. Some days are better than others. He can’t walk and has limited use of his limbs. He can still feed himself. He can still speak clearly. It’s just that sometimes his mind is there and sometimes it’s not.” She paused and looked at Tim. Most of this Arnie had told him. It was good to hear it from Mary, though, the person who now understood the most about Fred’s condition.

“How’s he doing today?” Tim asked, just to say something. He was starting to get a mental picture of Fred. He was also preparing to see him. After all, he’d come all this way. He might as well get on with it.

“He’s good.” She glanced at her wrist watch, which caused Tim to look at his. 9:30 in the morning. “He’s just finished breakfast and the aid worker has helped him use the bathroom. He’s doing pretty good today.” She stopped. “He knows you are going to be here.” She looked at Arnie, who nodded.

“We’ve talked to him a lot about you coming to visit,” Arnie said, nervously twirling his hat. “He really wants to see you.”

Tim sat for a few moments. He noticed a framed painting of a seascape on the wall. A wild ocean was crashing against a barren cliff wall. In the background a tiny boat with two fishermen was being tossed on the crest of a huge wave. Would they capsize or not? Who knew, but Tim could sort of relate to their predicament. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Ok,” he said, “Let’s go do it.”They all stood up, bottles of water all untouched. By force of habit Tim pushed his chair in. Suddenly he realized he had to use the bathroom. “Is there a restroom around here?” he asked.

Mary pointed to a door Tim hadn’t noticed. “Right through there. We’ll meet you out in the hall.”

Tim thanked her and went in. When he finished he washed his hands and splashed water on his face. As he dried off he studied his reflection in the mirror. He looked tired and haggard. His eyes were sunk from not having slept well the night before. Normally clean shaven, there was stubble on his chin from where he’d missed some spots that morning. He rubbed his hand over his bald head. He looked and felt old. Back home his brothers and sisters would be waiting to hear how his meeting with Fred had gone. Emma would be looking forward to his call tonight as well as him returning home. But before any of that could happen he had something to do. He had to go talk to Fred, his father (long lost?), and try to find out why, after all those years with no word, no nothing, the man suddenly wanted to contact the family he’d left behind over fifty years ago. He took a breath and let it out. Time to face the guy. As he pushed out into the hallway and walked toward Mary and Arnie he realized he’d not received an answer to the question he’d asked when he first sat down with her. The question that had been on his mind from the very beginning. He still didn’t know how long Fred had to live.

“He’s down this way,” Mary said, walking next to him. Arnie had elected to stay back, preferring, he said, to give Tim time alone with ‘his father’ as he put it. Due to his nervousness, Tim barely heard him and didn’t bother correcting him this time.

The hallway was dimly lit. Classical music was playing, the volume turned so low Tim could barely make out the song. But then it came to him. Something by Vivaldi, he thought. There appeared to be five rooms on each side. “He’s in the last room,” Mary said, as was they walked slowly down the thickly carpeted hallway. “On, the right. All the rooms are private, of course.” She added, whispering.

Tim noticed only a few rooms were occupied. As they approached the end of the hall, Mary indicated the room on the right. A placard on the wall indicated the name, ‘Fred Beverly’. The door was ajar. Tim peered in and could just make out the foot of a bed. He paused, knowing he had to go through with this but suddenly was unsure of what, if anything, he wanted to accomplish. Next to him, Mary placed her hand on his shoulder. “It won’t be so bad,” she said. “He’s pretty weak and doesn’t have much time. A few days, maybe a week at the most.” Well, that answered that, Tim thought to himself. “He’s very comfortable here. His body has just worn out. We are watching over him and  treating him for pain as necessary.” She stopped, letting the information sink in. “He’s been asking for you. He’s having a pretty good day. His mind is still as sharp as can be expected.”

“I won’t give him a heart attack or anything,” Tim said, trying for a little joke to break the seriousness of the mood. He was immediately sorry for what he’d said.

Mary didn’t seem to mind. She probably had seen her fair share of uncomfortable people in her time. People visiting a loved one at the end of their life and not know what to do. The ‘loved one’ part of it wasn’t necessarily the case with Tim, but still, the fact remained that Fred was dying. She squeezed his arm and pushed the door open. It was really going to happen. “Fred,” she spoke quietly as she stepped into the room. “You have a visitor.” She motioned for Tim to follow. He did. “Fred, this is your son, Tim,” she said. “He’s here to see you.”

As Tim walked into the room the old man in the bed turned his head toward him. There was a momentary glimmer of awareness before it appeared the light went out of his eyes. In that moment Tim realized that this guy, this long lost father, this man who had left his family behind without out a word for over fifty years, had no idea who he was. Tim could have been anyone dragged in off the street. He felt like an idiot to think something good could come from this meeting. He almost turned around and walked out of the room, but then the old guy blinked once and said,

“Hey there, Tim. How about a game of cribbage?”

And Tim knew right then that the guy did, in fact, recognize him. After all, he’d taught Tim the game when he was ten years old, five years before he’d left home. It was the last thing Tim expected to hear from the old guy.

“Well, I’ll leave you both to it,” Mary said and glanced at Tim as she left, raising her eyebrows like, ‘Are you Ok with this?’

Tim just nodded in response. “How long can I stay?” He asked her.

“As long as you want.” She quietly backed out the door, giving Tim an encouraging smile before leaving him and Fred all alone.

Fred’s bed was against the wall on the right hand side of the room. Tim pulled up a chair and sat next to him. Outside the window opposite of him was a view of the Cascade Mountains. They were in the far distance, covered with green trees, probably some kind of evergreens. Their presence calmed him. Tim turned to Fred who seemed to be waiting for him to say something. His face was what Tim would call grizzled. Worry lines were etched into his skin causing the sides of his mouth to droop down. A short, scraggly looking gray bead covered his face. Tufts of long white hair covered the few portions of his head that weren’t bald. His eyes had a bluish-green tint to the iris and Tim was surprised to find that, after all these years, he remembered their color. Once over six tall and robust, Fred now seemed shrunken and withered. A sheet and blanket were pulled up to just below his chin, leaving a wrinkled scrawny neck exposed. Tim had never met a ninety-two year old person before and had no idea what to expect. But now here he was. He his heart was beginning to beat rapidly and he felt the slightest bit of perspiration forming on his forehead. He took a deep breath to try to calm down. He had spent hours thinking about this first meeting. He’d talked to his siblings about it and talked to Emma about it too. He’d even stood in front of his bathroom mirror and practiced things to say. It all went out the window now that he was actually here with Fred. He said the first thing that came into his mind.

“How are they treating you here?”

“Fine, if you don’t mind the fact that you’re dying.”

Geez, Tim thought to himself, what a thing to say. He forged ahead. “Are you comfortable?”

“I am,” Fred said, and just stared straight at him.

Tim had so many things he wanted to ask the guy, like what have you been doing all these years for starters, but suddenly it occurred to him, sitting right here in this quiet hospice room with the peaceful view of the mountains out the window and soft classic music playing in the background, that this guy didn’t have much time to live. He could be gone from this earth at any moment. Tim shuffled in the chair and scooted a little closer to the bed. The movement caused Fred to look more closely at him. The guy was so old, so frail, so on the brink of death that Tim felt an unexpected wave of compassion roll over him. These were the last moments of the guy’s life. Tim’s being here counted for something. Plus, to be honest with himself, he really wasn’t sure he wanted to get into anything heavy with the guy right off the bat. He decided to take an easier path. “So you want to play cribbage?” he asked. “Tell me where the cards are.”

Fred pointed to a drawer on desk on the wall across from the bed. “Look in there,” Fred said. His voice was rough and dry sounding. Tim stood up and offered him some water through a straw from a cup, which he gratefully accepted. When he was done Tim put it off to the side on an end table next to the bed. Then he went to the desk and pulled out a worn deck of cards (red, Bicycle brand) and an old, two person cribbage board. Inside the drawer also noticed a small open box with some memorabilia in it which he figured would be interesting to look through. Maybe sometime he’d have a chance. He pulled a rolling meal table on a metal stand that could be swung over the bed into position. He noticed how clean it was and wondered if Fred was eating. He sat down, shuffled the cards, set them on the bed and then set up the cribbage board on the meal table. No one said a word while this was happening. Tim felt both nervous and relaxed at the same time. It was a weird feeling. Finally he said to himself, well I’m here. I might as well make the best of it.

“Ok,” he said, setting the deck of cards on the table. It was only a slightly awkward position. “Let’s cut to see who deals first.”

Later that night when he talked to Emma, Tim was as frank as he could be with her.

“I was so nervous when I first met him, I almost turned around and left.”

“But it went Ok?”

“Yeah, it did. Once we started playing cards and had something to focus on other than each other we both relaxed. I have to say, though, it was one weird day.”

“How long did you stay?”

“I got there around ten in the morning and stayed through lunch, which is at noon sharp.” He chuckled. “Everything there is very organized,” he added, with the emphasis on ‘very’.

“Well, I can imagine,” Emma said. She had told Tim when he called that she was out working in the garden. “I’m going to sit down in back and have some ice tea while we talk.” He could picture her settling into a comfortable wooden rocking chair in the shade on their back patio. He was a little envious. “Went did you leave?” she asked.

“Later in the afternoon. I sat with him during his lunch. He had a cup of chicken soup, a few bites of a sandwich and a little scoop of ice cream.” He chuckled some more. “He really likes ice cream, I guess.”

“Runs in the family.”

“Really,” Tim said, picturing Fred slowly eating his meal. Tim ended up helping him with the ice cream, spooning it for the old guy so it wouldn’t drip on him. Plus, the guy’s hand was shaking. Mary said it was all part of the body shutting down. “After lunch he fell asleep. I was going to leave, but decided to stay. Mary, the nurse came in to check on him and we talked out in the hall. She told me that in the five years he’s been there he’s never been a problem. He’s very friendly. He had a few friends that used to visit him when he first arrived but over the years they must have all passed away. The last year or so the only visitor had been Arnie. So…” Tim said, summing up, “He’s been by himself a lot.”

“Sounds incredibly sad,” Emma said. Tim could tell she had taken a sip of her tea. “What’s his life been like? You know, after he left you and after he dropped out so to speak.”

“Well, he rambles a lot when we talk. Arnie’s given me the best information. He told me that after Fred left the advertising agency he essentially went underground.”

“Why?” Emma asked, noting that her husband still used ‘Fred’ to refer to his biological father.

“Arnie said that Fred started drinking heavily while he was in San Francisco working for the Ad agency. He wasn’t happy at work and with life in general. He left us kids and mom for another woman, you know.”

“I remember. You told me.”

“I guess after a while she dumped him because of his drinking. Plus, she wanted kids and he didn’t. This is all coming from Arnie. He’s been Fred’s lawyer for over thirty years. I guess his best friend, the guy I’ve told you about, Irv, died of a heart attack a long time ago. Arnie’s been his closest friend since then.”

“Knows a lot, I bet.”

“He knows that Fred just up and quit work. That was in San Francisco in 1969. He left his car in the parking lot of his apartment off of Fulton Street in downtown and just essentially took off. Arnie thinks he may have hooked up with a commune in northern California, if you can believe that.”

“Like he became a hippie?” Emma laughed. “Wasn’t he a little old for that?”

“He was younger than Timothy Leary,” Tim said, laughing with his wife. It felt good to talk to her. “No one really knows and Arnie could never get it out of him.”

“Sound crazy,” Emma said, sipping some more tea. Tim could picture the whole scene back home. The peaceful backyard. Robins singing in the early evening. The aroma of freshly turned soil, the scent of flowers in bloom and tomatoes ripening on the vine. The vision helped him relax.

“Really crazy,” Tim agreed before continuing. “I guess he eventually ended up in Seattle working for a picture framing shop. He started doing drawings and art work of his own, if you can believe it. He lived in downtown Seattle for the rest of his life, working in the framing shop and doing his art work on the side. One of his paintings is even hanging in a conference room in the hospice wing. It’s pretty good. A seascape. Reminds me of something Winslow Homer would have done if he lived on the west coast.”

“I can’t believe it.”

“Me neither, but it’s true. The guy’s had a pretty interesting life.”

They were both quiet for a minute, each of them thinking. Tim looked out the window of his motel room. Across the busy road was Puget Sound. There was big barge on the water moving left to right. He watched it making it’s slow progress wondering where it was headed. Emma’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “How’d you two get along?”

“Not bad,” Tim said. “He’s actually pretty harmless. He even apologized.”

“For what?”

“Everything. He was pretty sincere.”

“I can’t believe it.”

“Yeah, well,” Tim said, pausing at least ten seconds before adding, “It’s complicated, you know. I haven’t seen him for over fifty years. I can’t really think of him as my father, since he hasn’t really been in my life. But I sort of have feelings for him, probably because I’m related to him. Plus, we did have a history together. He was there for the first fifteen years of my life. I started remembering times together with him like going hiking together, him teaching me how to fish, stuff like that. I’m still trying to work it out, but I can tell you this, I actually kind of feel for him. After all, he’s dying. Mary said he has less than a weak to live. Being with someone at the end of their life is a strange experience. With mom, it was what I wanted to do because of how much I loved her and what she meant to me and my life. With him, it’s not like that at all. I don’t even know him, yet I’m here,” Tim paused and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “Like I said, it’s complicated.”

“I can certainly imagine,” Emma said. She and Tim been married forty five years and they were close, they talked about things and were open with each other. She knew exactly what her husband was getting at. She had known Tim’s mom and had cared about her. She had never met the man who was Tim’s father. She could only imagine what her husband was going through. Then she asked the question she most wanted to know the answer to. “Do you like him?” she asked.

Tim was quiet. She could picture him looking out the window at whatever was outside of his motel room. She felt for him. This couldn’t be easy by any stretch of the imagination. Finally he answered her. “The jury’s still out on that,” he said. And suddenly a wave of fatigue swept over him. He realized how tired and exhausted he was. He still had to call his sister, Kathy, who would relay the information to the rest of his siblings. “Look, it’s been a long day. I should probably get going.”

Emma told him she understood. They talked a little longer about what was going on around their home and yard before they rang off, agreeing that Tim would call the next day. Emma sat in her chair looking over the beautiful backyard of their lovely home and wished with all of her heart she could be with her husband on this journey of his. A journey she knew he had to do on his own, but nevertheless, one she wished she could be with him for. At least we can talk on the phone, she thought to herself standing up and heading inside. The evening was beginning to cool and she had started to get a chill. As she was washing out her glass she had a momentary thought about calling Tim back. But she didn’t, knowing he needed time alone to get himself re-charged for tomorrow. Her husband was a kind man. She remembered the first time they ever had bluebirds nesting in their yard. Tim had insisted they turn a couple of chairs in their sunroom facing out into the yard. They spent every evening they could that summer, not watching television or reading, but watching the bluebirds as they first built a nest, then laid eggs and then hatched four new young fledglings. It had been a summer she’d never forget. That was the kind of person he was, gentle and loving. But now this man had reappeared in his life. His father. Emma had no trouble calling him that, but if Tim wanted to call him Fred that was fine too. The guy was dying but, to be perfectly honest, she couldn’t have cared less. She had never met the guy and felt what he had done to Tim and his siblings was inexcusable. What she cared about was her husband and how he was coping with all of this. And then she realized she’d forgotten to ask him another question that had been plaguing her. She had forgot to ask him if he was calling Fred dad yet.

Well, no, Tim wasn’t calling the old guy dad or father or even Fred for that matter. It was amazing how much talking two people could do without calling each other by their name. That’s what Tim had found out anyway. It was just one of the few things that were on his mind that night after he’d talked to Emma and gotten off the phone with his oldest sister, Kathy. It was after midnight when he’d finally gone to bed and sleep did not come easily. He’d lain awake most of the night, tossing and turning, listening to the whistles of the tugboats out on Puget and mulling over how the first day had gone talking to Fred. He finally dozed off around five in the morning only to be awakened by the buzzing of his alarm clock at eight. He didn’t know if he’d dreamt or not, but his mind seemed on fire when he woke up. He madder than he’d ever been before in his life. He was mad at Fred for getting in touch with him. He was mad at himself for getting sucked into the old guy’s drama. He was mad thinking about all the times his brothers and sisters had cried themselves to sleep because their father had left them. He was mad because his mom had been left alone through no fault of her own to raise of family of five kids by herself. He was mad that for years and years he had worked to forget about the guy who had fallen off the face of the earth, and for all practical purposes was dead and gone, but he really wasn’t. He’d just been living his life, not bothering to contact his sons and daughters, yet by some strange stretch of the imagination expected them all to fall back into his arms. Didn’t he realize the effort it had taken each of his kids to, if not totally forget him, at least put him aside so they could go about living healthy and productive lives? Did Fred not understand the depth of the pain he caused- that it just didn’t go away by wishing that it would? Was he that self centered? By the time Tim drove to the nursing home and ridden up to the second floor and let himself in to the hospice wing, he was fuming. He ran down the hall to Fred’s room and pushed open the door with a fury he was unable to control. The old guy was asleep and awoke startled. He started to smile, like he was going to give out a pleasant greeting. Tim cut him off.

“You wouldn’t believe how pissed off I am at you,” Tim yelled, leaning over the bed, his face only a foot from Fred’s. “You ruined all of our lives. Me, Steven, Larry, Kathy and Susan and you don’t even seem to care.” He paused to catch his breath before continuing. “You’re just a selfish, self centered jerk.” His heart was racing and his breath came in short spurts. He stared at Fred, daring him to say something. He didn’t. He just looked at Tim, blinking. Tim was furious. “Say something you stupid old fool,” he yelled, not caring if anyone heard him. “Are you deaf or what?” He leaned closer, now only inches from Fred’s face.

He felt a motion behind him. A nurse he hadn’t met was pushing through the door. “Everything all right in here?” she asked, moving to Fred’s bed as if to protect him. Tim stood up and backed away. She was heavy set with her hair pulled back in a bun. Her dark skin shone. Her eyes were huge and as she looked straight at Tim. He stepped back from the bed and began pacing back and forth pounding a fist into an open palm. He was on the verge of losing control. He looked from the nurse to Fred, who now looked frightened. Then he looked out the windows to the mountains. The room was still and he felt the walls closing in on him. After a minute he became aware of the sound of classical music from out in the hall. The notes soothed him. He felt himself calming down.

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.”No. Everything’s Ok,” he finally said, feeling his heart returning to normal. He rubbed his hand over his head. “I just lost my temper. That’s all.”

Though still looking concerned, she nodded. Her name tag said ‘Annie’. “I know. It gets frustrating sometimes.”

Tim looked at her, then at Fred. Then he looked out the window to the mountains again. The sky was clear and blue and it looked beautiful outside. He could feel heat from the sun through the glass. A good day to be alive. “Sorry,” he said, to both Annie and Fred, raising both his hands in what he hoped was a peaceful gesture, “I had a rough night.”

“I’m sure this can’t be easy,” Annie said. “But please believe me when I tell you that your father…” she smiled and motioned toward the bed, “Really wants you to be here.”

Tim suddenly felt embarrassed. He reminded himself that Fred (not ‘father’) had less than a week to live. “Yeah, I know,” he said, wiping his hand over his forehead. “I’m Ok now.” He looked past Annie to Fred. The old guy was watching him, but it was hard to tell what he was thinking. He didn’t looked scared anymore, only curious. Everyone said that Fred wanted him to be here and now he was. Yesterday had gone Ok. He might as well make the most of today. He moved carefully toward the bed so as to not startle the guy or frighten him, and asked, “Want to pick up where we left off on that cribbage game?”

Fred nodded and smiled. “Sure, just don’t yell at me anymore.” Was he making a joke? Tim couldn’t tell.

He and Annie looked at each other. She seemed to be saying that it was Fred’s way of forgetting that the outburst had happened. Time to move on. Tim felt like saying, Yeah, easy for you to say. He was still mad, but had managed to get control of himself. Maybe he’d talk to Fred about it later. “Ok,” he said, giving the old man the weakest of smiles. “Let’s get that game going.”

Tim took the cribbage board out of the top drawer of the small dresser where he’d left it the day before. Annie raised the back of the bed so Fred was better situated to play cards and then she left them alone, giving Tim an encouraging smile on her way out. Tim did his best to smile back, but felt he failed miserably. He turned his attention to the game. Cribbage is scored by pegging points. The first one to get around the board and score 121 points is the winner. Usually, when a hand is played, ten or twelve points are scored, meaning most games ended after playing ten or twelve hands. Yesterday Tim and Fred played three hands before Fred got tired and they quit for the day. They had agreed at the time, though, to continue the game, so they picked up today where they had left off. It was Tim’s turn to deal, so he shuffled and dealt out six cards to each of them. Two were chosen to be put into the ‘crib’ which was in Tim’s possession this hand since he had dealt. While they played Tim asked Fred a question.

“Do you remember teaching me how to play, back when I was about ten years old?” Fred studied his cards, apparently thinking. Tim watched him patiently. Through his mind raced all of the things he wished he’d asked yesterday. Reliving his history playing cards with the guy who, back then, called himself his father, was low on that list. Finally he shook the old guys leg. “Hey, never mind. Why don’t you tell me why you left us instead? And, while you’re at it, tell me why you stayed out of our lives for all these years.” He stopped talking and starred at the old man. Fred coughed a little and looked at Tim. Then his face reddened and he slammed his cards down.

“I left because I wasn’t happy with your mom, Ok? Marriage wasn’t what I thought it was going to be, especially after you kids came.”

“So you didn’t have mom all to yourself, is that what you’re saying?”

“Something like that.” The old man lay back against his bed. His grizzled head looked small on the pillow. He closed his eyes.

Tim’s anger reared up again and he wanted to smash the guy in the face. What a self-centered creep. He clenched his fists, fingernails digging into his hand. He took a deep breath and willed himself to calm down. “What do you mean, ‘Something like that’?” he asked, trying to at least be civil. He set his cards down on the bed and looked out the window hoping the view of the mountains would help calm himself. It didn’t.

“I just decided I didn’t want to be married anymore ,” he finally said, his voice so low it was almost a whisper.

“And being a father…” Tim said, hoping Fred would finish the sentence. A minute went by, and when it became apparent he wasn’t going to say anything, Tim added, “Being a father was something you didn’t want to do anymore either, was that part of it, too?”

Fred looked at Tim. His eyes were filled with more sadness than Tim had ever seen before in a human being. He looked genuinely contrite. But that wasn’t good enough for Tim.

“In other words, you were just a selfish, self centered, egotistical man, who had no place in his heart for anyone but himself. Is that it?”

“It’s complicated, but, yeah, I guess that’s about it.”

Tim was sick of everything being ‘complicated’. He pushed his chair back and stood up. “What a friggin’ jerk you are,” he spat out. He turned, shoved the door open and hurried out of the room, down the hall and into the conference room. He needed to be alone. He’d often heard the term ‘seeing red’ and hadn’t ever experienced the phenomenon until now. Yeah, he saw red, that was for sure, and if red signified out-of-control anger that’s what he had. He had it in spades.

In the quiet security of the conference room he put his head against the wall, trying to calm down. He should never have come out here to try to reconnect with the guy who at one time was his father. The trip was more than a waste of time, it was deep down painful; like a knife cutting out his heart or needles jammed up under his fingernails kind of painful. It was so intense and overwhelming that he felt weak and nauseous, like he was going to be sick. He should just leave, cut his losses and chalk the whole thing up to a misguided idea. Suddenly his mind went blank. He collapsed on a chair and starred into nothingness, numbness overwhelming him.  When his senses returned, the first thing he noticed was the artwork on the wall. The painting Fred had done. He remembered it from yesterday. A seascape. Two guys were dressed in yellow foul weather gear, working the oars in a wooden row boat. It looked like they were fighting the elements and the stormy seas for their lives. Rain was pelting down and ominous cliffs were being battered by huge waves. The far horizon was dark and foreboding and the demise of the two men appeared to be imminent, but still, they hadn’t given up. Fred had captured the mood perfectly. Tim liked art. His brother, Larry, the one who was still angry enough to announce that he wanted to kill Fred, was a landscape painter of some renown in the upper Midwest. Tim liked his brother’s work and the gentle, pastoral scenes he captured so well. Now he found himself strangely drawn to Fred’s painting. He looked at the title, “Men Against the Sea”. Not too original but it was certainly apropos. Just looking at the painting allowed Tim some time to calm down. He suddenly felt emotionally exhausted. He leaned back in his chair. Should he stay or should he leave? He owed Fred nothing. Whatever he thought he’d get out of the trip, it wasn’t going to happen. He honestly doubted Fred even knew who he was half the time. He was just an old, old man whose time on earth was coming to an end. Why did he even need to be around to watch the guy live out the last days of his life? Would Fred have done the same for Tim or any of his siblings given a similar situation? Not a chance. The hell with it, Tim thought to himself. He made his decision. He’d just leave, head home and get back to Emma and all the good things that gave meaning to his life. He was starting to get up when he glanced at the painting again. Without expecting it he felt himself starting to get drawn into the scene. There was life and energy painted on the canvas that was obviously done by a skilled artist. The more he looked, the more it seemed as if the scene was talking to him. Telling him something. Touching something deep in his soul.

Later, Tim realized he’d lost track of time. When he checked his watch he realized he’d sat in the chair looking at Fred’s painting for over half an hour. Finally, he knew what he had to do. He stood up and left the conference room. Instead of turning right and leaving the wing and the hospice unit behind forever, he turned left and went back to Fred’s room. He’d never get the answers to the questions he wanted to hear but at least he could try to understand the man whose genes he carried half of. He owned himself at least that much. Maybe he owed Fred that much too.

Mary met him as he walked toward Fred’s room. “Everything Ok, here?” she asked, looking at him carefully. Whether it was concern for Tim or concern for Fred, it was hard to tell. Maybe both of them. After all, she was a nurse and trained in being aware things like this, people falling apart.

“No, I’m fine,” Tim said, hoping he sounded confident. “I just needed to get myself together a little bit.”

She nodded, like she understood and patted his shoulder. “I understand. It’s hard. Just let me know if I can help in any way.”

“Thanks, I will,” Tim told her, thinking that she didn’t even know the half of it. He gave her a smile goodbye and she gave him an encouraging look back. Then he went into Fred’s room announcing, “Ok, I’m back. Let’s get going with that cribbage game.”

Fred had dozed off and awoke with a start. Tim gave him a minute to collect himself before asking, “Do you want to play some more?”

“Sure,” he said. “Who’s turn is it to deal?

“Yours. Go ahead,” Tim said, indicating the cards. He sat back while Fred shuffled and dealt the hand. They were half way through the game and Tim was ahead by three points.

The decision Tim made was not monumental at all. In a conversation with Emma a week later, after he’d come home, he tried to explain his reasoning, “I just felt I should stay,” he told her. “To tell you the truth, I kind of felt sorry for the guy. That was my main reason.”

There were sitting side by side in the backyard sipping ice tea. The sun was setting, the robins were singing and the flower gardens were blooming, just like the week before when Tim was at Aurora Woods with Fred, keeping the old man company and sharing the last moments at the end of his life.

“Even though he’d left you and your family and had no contact with you for over fifty years?” Emma asked. She reached over and caressed her husband’s shoulder, happy beyond words that he was safely back home.

“You know, I resolved that issue years ago,” he said, sighing. “Remember when my mom passed away and we were all there for her? She was loved and she felt everyone’s love there for her at the end of her life.”

Emma nodded, “I remember.”

“Fred had no one. Just Arnie and no one else. It was sad. I just felt I should be there for the guy…” He sighed a heavy sigh, blowing air out. “Just be with him. It was the end of his life. Someone should be there.”

“You said he had Arnie.”

Tim was silent for almost a minute, framing his answer. “I was thinking more in terms of family,” he finally said.

“Even though you didn’t know him from Adam.”

“Yeah, even with that. But I am, er, was you know. I was related.”

“Well, that’s a change, isn’t it, you thinking of him like that.”

“I know. I didn’t expect it. It just happened. In fact I almost left earlier that day.”

“What happened?”

When Tim had gone back into the old guy’s room, Fred seemed to have put the incident behind him. Or, more to the point, thought Tim, he’d just forgotten it’d ever happened. So they played cards, not saying much. Finally, Fred put his hand up. “Let’s take a break. I’m pretty tired.”

“Sure, that’s fine,” Tim said, setting the deck aside. The game was close, Fred up by two points. The old guy closed his eyes. He seemed to be breathing comfortably.

After a few minutes he asked, “Are you married?”

Tim was taken aback. The old guy had never asked anything personal before. “I am,” he said, recovering , thinking about his family. “My wife’s name is Emma. I met her when I was in college at the University of Minnesota. We’ve been married for forty-five years.” When the old guy just nodded, Tim went on and told him about the son and two daughters he and Emma had. Then he told him about their grandkids, eight in all. He deeply loved his family. Of course, they’d had their challenges like all families but they’d worked through them. They were together and close and that was all that mattered. But what really mattered was that, as he talked, Tim realized that Fred was a part of that family as well. Without Fred there would have been no Tim. And without Tim there would have been… well, nothing. So he talked on and on, telling Fred about his wife and kids and grandkids and bringing the old guy some small understanding, he hoped, of the joy he had in his life and the joy his family brought him. When he finished he told Fred, “The truth is, one of the reasons I wanted to see you was to tell you that by leaving us, you missed out on quite a bit, and that’s putting it mildly.”

“Life isn’t always easy,” Fred said. “At least after I left I had my freedom. I could do whatever I wanted to do, and I did. I had a pretty good life as it stands.”

“You weren’t ever lonely?”

Fred smiled. “No, I had friends, you know. I wasn’t a hermit.”

“Did you ever think about us?”

“A little. In the beginning. But honestly… after a while… not really… no. Especially as the years went by. I was happy with my job at the framing shop. With my painting.”

“I saw the one in the conference room.”

Fred smiled. “Two Men and The Sea”. Not very original title was it?”

“I liked it. I should tell you that Larry’s a painter. He does landscapes and he’s pretty good. People buy his work.”

Fred lay still. Tim wondered what could be going through the old guy’s mind. He and his son had this huge thing in common, this shared ability to create artwork on canvas. Tim, for one, thought it was an exceptional gift they both shared. One that Fred may have passed on to his youngest son. But did Fred acknowledge it at all? No. What he said was,

“I think I’ll take a little nap.” He looked at Tim before adding, “Will you stay a while longer? I just need to rest.”

Tim looked back at him. The guys eyes were moist. Tears? He couldn’t tell. The room was so quiet he could hear the classical music from out in the hall. Mozart? He looked at Fred who was waiting for an answer. “Sure,” he said. “You rest all you want. I’m not going anywhere.”

Fred closed his eyes. Tim stood up and quietly moved to the window. He pulled up a chair and sat down, looking out at the mountains, looking but not seeing, his mind turned inward thinking about the old man in the bed next to him. The old guy had lived so long but, to Tim’s way of thinking, had missed so much. What is it that made him give up one life for another? Tim would never get an answer, he was sure of that now. He wasn’t even sure Fred was able to tell him even if he wanted to. But what he did know was that he felt he should be here with the guy. Why? Maybe it just came down to it being the right thing to do-to keep an old man company at the end of his life. He knew that’s what his family would do for him when the time came. It was the least he could do for Fred.

Sitting by the window with his thoughts, Tim didn’t notice Fred open his eyes and briefly look at him, trying to connect his mind with what he was seeing. Finally he did. That’s the guy who’s been playing cribbage with me, he thought to himself. Then he smiled, remembering that he was winning. He looked around the room. The quiet sterile room where he’d spent the last few days. He liked how peaceful it was. He liked how he wasn’t feeling pain anymore. He liked talking to the guy who was keeping him company. Who did he say he was again? He couldn’t remember. Well, never mind. He seemed like a good guy, maybe a little too emotional for him, but a good guy nevertheless. Then he felt tired again and he closed his eyes. His breathing slowed and he slipped into a deep sleep. A few minutes later his hand jerked one last time and then was still. His heart had stopped beating. Fred had passed away.

Tim and Arnie made funeral arrangements. Fred has stipulated in his will that he was to be cremated. “There’s a place he liked up on the Olympic Peninsula near the town of Moclips. That’s where he wanted his ashes scattered,” Arnie told Tim. Two days after Fred died they held a brief service in a small chapel in Aurora Woods attended by Tim, Arnie, Mary, Annie and a few others residents. Afterward, Arnie and Tim each drove to SeaTac airport where Tim dropped off his rental car. Then, together with Arnie driving, they continued through Tacoma and around the southern end of Puget Sound and over to the coast where they headed north up to the little town of Moclips. Just north of town was a hiking trail that Arnie knew about that would take them to an overlook on a cliff above the sea. They parked the car and got out to walk, Tim carrying Fred’s ashes in a box in a brown paper shopping bag. The path lead through a dense pine forest, needles on the ground softening their steps.

They walked the narrow trail in pleasant companionship, having become close, bonded by the events over the last few days. They didn’t say much, but at one point Arnie, who was leading, asked over his shoulder, “Hey, I never asked. You know that cribbage game you guys were playing?”

“Yeah?”

“Who won?”

“Fred did. He was up by two points at the end.”

Arnie grinned to himself before saying, “It was a good thing you did, you know, being with your dad like that and keeping him company at the end. I’m sure it meant a lot to him.”

Tim really had nothing to say. Like so many things with Fred (he still didn’t call him dad, but didn’t mind Arnie referring to him as that), whether or not his being with him was of any comfort was another thing he’d never know the answer to. Finally he told Arnie the only thing that really made any sense to him, “I just did what I felt was the right thing to do. That’s really all there was to it.”

Arnie stopped, turned around and faced him, “You could have just left, you know, after that first day. In fact, you didn’t even have to come out here.”

“If I didn’t come out, I would have always wondered about him and what he did with his life. Now I know.”

“So you’re glad you came?”

“Well, it was a long way to come to play a game of cards, I’ll tell you that,” Tim said, trying to lighten the mood. Arnie just smiled and didn’t say anything but turned and started walking. Tim followed along, talking, “But, honestly, when we were playing  cards we were the most relaxed of all the time I was with him. We didn’t even say much, just chatted a bit and were together. It seemed like that was enough. Maybe that’s really all it needed to be. Just he and I playing cribbage, like in the olden days.” Tim walked along, enjoying the day, thinking about Fred. He’d walked this same trail who knew how many times. Now Tim was walking it, too, and seeing the pacific ocean for the first time. That counted for something. The two men moved along the path toward the sound of distant waves crashing against rocks, carried to them on a fresh ocean breeze. “So, in the long run…” he said to Arnie’s back, “Yeah, I’m glad I came out here.” Even though he couldn’t see, he had the feeling Arnie was smiling.

A few minutes later they came out through an opening in the forest where the trail passed right along the edge of a cliff, offering a panoramic view of the ocean. The day was bright and cloudless with sunlight glistening on the water. Gulls and terns soared above them calling back and forth, dipping and gliding on an off-shore breeze. Waves crashed on the rocks nearly one-hundred feet below, kicking up a spray, rainbow patterns shimmering in the mist. There was a scent of salt and seaweed in the air. Tim was reminded of the scene Fred had painted. He had captured the essence of the ocean in a way that showed his understanding and awareness of the sea with all of its force and wonder. He was a talented artist. Tim paused, looking out over the ocean. Fred had chosen to leave one life behind in Minnesota for a life out here on the west coast. Arnie told him that Fred would come up to the Olympic Peninsula often to hike and to paint. “He loved it up here,” Arnie told Tim more than once. “It was a special place for him.”

Standing on the overlook, Tim could get it. He’d lived in the Midwest his entire life. The furthest west he’d ever been before was the Rocky Mountains in Montana. Seeing the ocean for the first time like he was now experiencing made him feel a little closer to Fred. The waves were so powerful and the sea so immense; he felt he could begin to get a sense of what Fred may have been all about. What may have driven him. He could have been trying to connect with nature to fulfill a desire to touch the beauty the world had to offer and to capture that beauty in his own paintings. Tim would never understand the man’s need to separate himself from his family and turn his back on a wife who loved him and his children who needed him. But he could tell that within Fred there was a desire to live life in a way that was unique unto himself and to capture the essence of what life had to offer through his paintings. Yet, at the end of his life, Fred had reached out to try and reconnect with the family he’d left behind so long ago. Why had he done that? What had he hopped to accomplish? Did he not realize that some things once done could never be undone? Life went on. Tim’s brothers and sisters wanted nothing to do with the guy. Tim had chosen to come out to met him; taken a chance, really, just to see for himself what Fred was like and if he had any reservations about what he’d done. He hadn’t. Fred had lived his life the way he wanted, yet, at the end, wanted something more. Maybe Tim had been wrong to journey to the coast to see him. Fred could have died all by himself with maybe Arnie by his side. That’s probably the way it should have been. But Tim had been there. He and Fred had played cribbage and talked, and Tim found himself drawn into the last days of Fred’s life, deciding to stay with him to the end. To keep him company. It seemed like the right thing to do. Did he do it because he suddenly had developed an affection for the old man? Not really. He didn’t really know him well enough for that. But there was something there. A bond of some sort he felt toward the guy. It made more sense for him to stay with him to the end rather than leave him all alone. That much he knew for sure.

Arnie tapped him on his should interrupting his thoughts. “Look out there.” Tim looked. Way out on the water, ridding the waves was a wooden boat with two people in it. They may have been fishing, but they certainly reminded Tim of Fred’s painting, “Two Men and The Sea.” He smiled at Arnie. He had come to like the guy who had been such a good friend to Fred for all those years. “You doing Ok?” Arnie asked.

Tim didn’t have to think too hard. “Yeah. I’m doing fine.” Then he asked, “How about you?”

Arnie nodded and smiled. He was Ok. “I’m good. I like it here.”

“Me too,” Tim said.

The gulls were calling  and the waves were crashing. It was a day he felt certain Fred would have enjoyed. Then he took the lid off the box and let the wind blow the ashes off the edge of the cliff out over the water and the rocks below, spiraling out to sea and forever becoming part of the ocean Fred loved.

After a moment’s silent contemplation, the two men turned and headed down the trail away from the ocean and into the pine forest. Arnie would be dropping Tim off at the Seattle’s airport and they had a three hour drive ahead of them. He was heading home on the evening flight and he was ready leave. He had done all he needed to do on his trip. Fred had his paintings. Tim had his family. Now all he wanted to do was to go home and see them and be with them. He’d been gone long enough.