83 Years

My father is 83 years old.

I forget that sometimes, or perhaps I choose to ignore the affect those many years have on him. In my mind, my dad remains the vital and vibrant man who moved to Arizona eight years ago. He’s not, and I struggle to understand – or appreciate – the distinction between his desire and ability.

My father is 83 years old. He’s his mother’s last living child, having lived longer than both of his parents and all of his brothers and sisters. The life he’s lived – that he’s made – is a testimony to his drive and persistence, and to the honor that was imbedded by his beloved Marine Corps.

He’s 83 years old and still enjoys drinking beer, playing poker and watching a young woman cross the street.

I forget what those 83 years mean, or maybe I just choose to remember what he was just a few short years ago. That’s a memory easy to believe because he’s so often alert and aware when we talk; it’s easier to overlook his difficulty walking or getting out of a car, or those disoriented telephone conversations. It’s easier to cling to a façade that he’s doing well, simpler to overlook the things I choose to ignore.

I asked my dad for help on Friday, and he said yes.

I asked if he could build some simple banner stands for a client, if he felt comfortable taking on a little project. I thought he’d enjoy doing this simple little task, happy to be helping me and selfishly, I was relieved that he would release from this burden.

I promised to return Sunday to go over the project, deliver him plans and answer any questions, and he was eager. So eager, in fact, that he telephoned me three times on Saturday to ask questions and share his preparations.

But Sunday was difficult. My dad struggled to understand the project, had difficulty following my instructions and just couldn’t comprehend any of the plan’s dimensions. As we went over the project a second time, he began to get frustrated…and confused. We spent more than a hour reviewing the project but I could see his understanding falling further and further away, until I finally asked him if he would feel more comfortable with someone else doing this work. “No…no son, I can do this.” So we started over, discussing the project, repeating different parts over and over again but the results remained the same, or worse; My dad just couldn’t maintain focus. I could see that he was frustrated and discouraged. He was coming to the realization that he had no idea of what we were discussing.

So I asked again if someone else should handle this project. He slowly raised his head and looked at me, with tears in his eyes he said “I used to be able to do this, to understand this. If you’d have asked me a couple of years ago…I could do this. But, I don’t think I can do this for you.”

Just like that, I’d selfishly broken his heart.

I got up and hugged him and – for the second time in my life – my father began to cry on my shoulder, crushed with the recognition of one more thing he can no longer do.

It’s easy to remember a vital and vibrant father, selfishly simple. Easy to believe weekly dinners and three-or-four phone calls during the week are enough. It’s comforting to tell myself my father prefers his independence, that he takes pride in doing things for himself. Easy to be angered by his stubbornness, his insistence on the solitary decisions he’s beginning to make for his future. And, it’s easier telling myself that I’m taking good care of him, but I’m not.

I’m sorry dad.” I said when leaving a while later.

I’m sorry too, son, that I can’t do this for you. But sorrier more for myself”

That…was the hardest part.

Boners Knockers

Asian !

“Hck…ugh..cough…Hello.”

I woke my dad again when calling today, “Hi Dad, did I wake you? I’m sorry.”

“No, no, you didn’t wake me, I was just watching…what the hell is this…Doctor Phil!”

It saddens me to wake my dad, it saddens me more that I wake him in the middle of the day, in front of the TV. Saddens me most that he’s watching DOCTOR PHIL! WHAT in the world!? I’ve grown reluctant to call him during the day because his state unsettles me, I don’t like that he’s sleeps much of the day. Or that he’s resigned himself to watching TV.

I can pretend to feel better telling myself this is his choice; or what his choices have led to: almost no contact from his friends, or family. But it’s his feelings that matter – they’re mostly hurt and resentful – along with his health and safety; I’m comforted that he’s safe and mostly healthy. But realistically, despite the fact that he’s chosen solitude, from his perspective he is alone – the last of the Mohicans. He has no more living brothers or sisters, no longer anyone who remembers him as a boy, no one to reminisce childhood memories. No one who knows where he’s come from, I think that aches him beyond his knowing.

I’ve asked him about his childhood and family in Arizona, before the hardship and California relocation to follow the crops. My dad appreciates the questions but grows frustrated at what he doesn’t know, or remember. So I prod him…

C’mon dad, who was older Uncle Ralph or George?” I never knew George, my wayward uncle, and so never think of him as uncle.

“Ralph, of course – he’d never let you forget that – then there was, let’s see…George and Isaac. Then came Consuelo, Christina, Carmela and Lucy, ay that Lucy (big smile). Then Leon, Me and Ray.”

I asked him if he remembers Arizona, what it was like.

“I remember my father had his tailor’s shop, but lost it during The Depression.”

And so I asked him if his father had any siblings but he didn’t know, he remembers his mother had a number of brothers and sisters. “The oldest was Claudio, then another brother, a sister, then my mother, and a younger sister, I don’t remember any of their names.” He grew quiet so we sat a few minutes in silence. I could see my father thinking, trying to remember but failing.

So I asked him “Dad, I recall that we have some Russian ancestry, right? Is that from your father’s side or grandma Tita’s?”

He looked at me and I could see him working to remember “It had to be my mother, yes it was my mother, from her mother. Her maiden name was Foss, my middle name. I was named after my uncle, Claudio Foss, so I’m Claudio Foss Delgado.”

“But Foss wasn’t their name in Russia, I have no idea what it had been”

“When did they emigrate from Russia?” I asked

“Oh, hell, I don’t know, Claudio was the oldest, and he was born in Mexico”

“Do you know when?”

“No, but he was much older than my mother, in fact, my mother’s older sister was much older than her, maybe ten years”

I tried to do the math, if my grandmother’s older sister was ten years older than her, her next older brother would be – at least – 16 months older than her, and then Claudio would be another 16 months or so…about thirteen years older than my grandmother…

“Dad, when was grandma Tita born?”

“Oh hell son, I don’t know”

“Well what do you think, she was maybe twenty years old when she married?”

“Probably”

“And when was Uncle Ralph born?”

“I don’t know that either”

“Well how much older than you was he?”

He looked at me with a blank face “You got me”

More silence.

We talked some more about his – our – heritage and came to the conclusion that my uncle Ralph was likely born around 1905. I suggested that meant his mother would’ve been born around 1885 and he corrected me, excitedly, he remembered his mother had been born in the late 1870s.

We continued, and I was glad to see how happy this conversation was making him. We concluded that if his mother had been born in the late 1870′s then his oldest uncle was likely born around 1860 – before the Civil War! Once we’d considered our conclusion, we sat back into another period of silence – amazed instead of frustrated. It was good to see my dad’s animation, and enjoyment – and remarkable to learn how his genealogy stretches back before the Civil War in just one generation.

After a while my dad looked at me, contented. He’d enjoyed this conversation – a journey to his childhood, where he could share a little of the boy no one else knows. No one else but his son.

We sat a little longer, drinking beer, and I couldn’t help myself.

I said to him “So, your grandmother’s from Russia.”

“That’s right”

“You know dad, Russia’s in Asia…”

Then he looked at me with a snap of his head

“…so that means…”

“The HELL I am!”

 

Boners Knockers

Decisions, decisions

After a week of strong voice and alert mind, my father has reverted back to long hours of daytime sleeping, confusion and loneliness. I try to prolong our conversations when I call but he keeps them short. I’ve been calling him more often but there’s really not much to discuss: what he’s watching on television (he’s unsure), what he had for dinner last night (he doesn’t remember), how was his crossword puzzle today (didn’t finish it). It appears to me that beyond his afflictions of age, he’s also battling depression – and that’s why the trips to the ballgames last month meant so much. But now that the season’s over, he’s not much interested in following the playoffs. He’s not a football fan, has never cared much for basketball, or golf, or reading; then I’m reminded…these are his choices.

And, I consider where his choices have delivered him.

As a growing boy, I was amazed with my father’s fortitude; and suffered its consequences. I’ve believed his fortitude – his conviction – was a key to his success. But I also recognize it’s his burden. My father always believes he’s right, but where most of us recognize the possibility – or likelihood – that we may be mistaken, my father doesn’t. He’s right, he’s always been right; and if he affords you any respect, he’ll reluctantly agree to disagree with you when he can’t convince you of his right-ness. But like all of us, my father’s occasionally wrong. He’ll make a mistake – or a wrong decision – but be so invested in that decision, there’s just no possibility to reconsider; even when evidence and events suggests reconsideration is fitting. That fortitude, that conviction, that righteousness has rendered his life much harder than it’s needed to be. It’s cost him relationships – friendships and family – fortune and some measure of happiness. It’s made him the man he is.

The night of The Call, he suggested that some decisions need to be made. As we discussed them obliquely, it became clear his decisions were made; and today he shared that he wants to discuss them with his children.

I just hope they’re the right ones.

Boners knockers

Not the Mama

How old must you be before you’re no longer considered your parent’s child?

And at what age do you stop seeking your parent’s counsel and consolation?

I thought I’d be there by now – I’ve raised a son, have enjoyed professional success several times over, and now explore life from a more mature perspective – but I’m not. I still seek parental counsel on occasion but am missing my best counselor: my mom. Today was her birthday, she’d have been 79.

I could always count on my mom, she’d listen to my story and ask questions; thought provoking questions: “Why do you think that?”, or “What were you expecting?”, or “Is that realistic?”. She’d think a bit, then look at me and offer a perspective I’d never, ever considered. Her thoughts weren’t always spot on, but they tempered my decisions and her consideration encouraged me. It’s interesting how helpful she was, since I came to recognize late in her life – very late – how little she knew of what I did professionally. Surely, she could tell her friends my job title but she never understood its meaning, yet she’d provide sound counsel and heartfelt consolation on those days I lost the struggle. I miss her guidance. I also miss the sparkle in her eye and the smile that brightened her face whenever she’d see me

But oh those periods of struggle…

I’ve turned to my father – for consolation, comfort and assurance – and have come away…unfulfilled. He’s listened to my confoundedness; he’s listened silently – without question or consideration – and then told me what upsets him: his loneliness, how no one ever calls, how he can’t hear, how it’s damn hard getting old. He’s turned the tables on me! So I walk away frustrated, unfulfilled and angry. Angry that he doesn’t listen, angry that he’s so self-absorbed, angrier still that he’s not my mother!

And there’s the rub, he’s not my mother, or rather, he’s not like my mother. My mother wasn’t like my mother in my early days; she grew into it. Imperfect as he is, he’s my dad. He did the best he could and just wasn’t reared to provide consideration, comfort or solace – he was reared to put out his best effort, thoughts or feelings be damned. That’s how he ran his family and that‘s how he raised his children, I suppose to our betterment. And so, perhaps, it’s time to stop seeking my parent’s counsel and consolation.

But I still miss her.

Happy Birthday Mom.

The Call

I got the call today. THAT call. Not exactly the ‘I’ve Fallen and Can’t Get Up’ call, but my father’s version of it. The call that I’m sure took my father longer than it should have to make, not because he didn’t want to disturb me – and certainly, he didn’t – mostly because he’d never expected he’d NEED to.

My Dad’s ringtone is The Marine Corp Hymn – of course! – and my phone plays it loud…really loud; surrounding people have actually started marching when he’s called me. But today, his voice was about as far from that ringtone as possible. I knew something was up.

Hi dad, how are you doing?

His voice was weak and breathy, nearly a whisper. “Son, I…I need your help…I’m okay…I need your help.

I was alarmed because he was so…hesitant, his voice was breathy and he really seemed to need help. “Dad! Are you okay!?

Yes, yes, I’m fine. Can you please come over?

I was involved with work so asked him for a few minutes and then I’d be right over.

He needed my help. Now, my dad’s needed my help before but it was always to pull a stump, or hang some sheet-rock, or place a beam. But today he needed my help in a way he detests, he wanted me to do something for him that he couldn’t.

I was surprised at how old he seemed when I arrived, much older than last Friday…four short days ago. He was moving slowly, very slowly, nearly creaking as he walked and then stopped; easier for him that I close that gap rather than meet me halfway. He needed my help. His doctor’s office had called to affect an immediate change in his medication – why they thought a voicemail message was sufficient is beyond me – but that’s an entirely different post on an entirely different blog. My father couldn’t understand the message; he needed me to hear it and relay it in a way he could understand. And as I did so, his doctor called – his actual, real-life doctor – and spent several minutes trying to connect with my father until I was handed the phone and told “Handle this.” What ultimately developed is that the doctor’s office will now direct me regarding my father’s care and medication. A simple enough decision toward a task I’m happy to do. But it left my father sad and upset, doubting his ability to live alone and determined to no longer do so.

It’s also left me upset.

Because of my father’s unyielding nature, his decisions are final; even when they bring him hardship…they’re final. I can also see that he doesn’t even need to be at his point yet, but his refusal to socially engage in any way beyond his children has left him solitary. And man – particularly this man – is not a solitary being. Prolonged isolation hastens one’s decline, and my father is in decline. I’ve struggled with this choice of his – solitude – because I see its effect. I struggle with the thought that he chooses seclusion, inaction; boob-tube TV (yes, he watches Dr. Phil, People’s Court and all those). And then I recognize – and it catches me off guard every single time – that his choice may be solitude, but it seems so much like farewell.

Boners knockers

An Era Begins…

He clutched the bag tightly as he walked home from school, mindful not to lose it, proud to have been charged with this task. The boy’s mother had had instructed him early that morning, as she’d doled out a few of her remaining pennies, to buy a pound of coffee on his way home from school. His father insisted on freshly brewed coffee first thin every morning, and the boy – ever fearful of his father’s anger – wanted to be sure the coffee was there.

He enjoyed his walk home from school, heading up San Pedro Street toward their house just beyond 15th Street. Walking home alone was much easier than when his brother Leon joined him. The boy loved his older brother but was always afraid of the trouble Leon would find – or seek out. Yes, walking home alone was much easier and more pleasant; he could watch the older children play, pet some of the dogs along the way, or just stop and watch the local businesses wind their days down.

But today, as he approached 21st Street, the boy noticed a man and woman working at a table, what was odd was their table straddled the open warehouse door – half in and half out. He watched them working – silently – as he approached. He couldn’t understand what it was they were doing and, unknowingly, stopped to watch as they worked. After a few minutes, the man peered over at the boy and asked “What are you doing, what is it you want?

The boy was caught off guard, unaware that he’d even stopped to watch. “What? Nothing…what is it you’re doing? Can I watch?

Working.” The man answered. “Sure, why not? We’re cleaning these chilies, see?” the man had picked up a small red chili and held it up to the boy’s face.

We soak these Jap chilies overnight to soften them and then lay them out in the sun to dry. That makes it easier for us to tear off their stems and remove their seeds.

The woman looked up for the first time, first at the boy and then at the man; and said something the boy couldn’t hear. The man looked more closely at the boy, regarding him, and then asked, “What are you doing here? Do you want a job?

A job?” The boy asked. “What would I do?

Just what we’re doing here, if you think you can do this. What do you say?

The boy though a moment. Of course he could do that, what would be so hard about tearing stems from chilies? “Yes I want a job, but I go to school. I could work after school. And on Saturdays. But first, I’ll have to ask my mother.

The man looked the boy over once more. “Ask your mother!? How old are you?

Eleven.

Okay, go ask your mother.

The boy raced home to ask his mother who openly wondered how he could go to school and work. But she could see her son’s eagerness, and intent. So they made an agreement: he could work three days after school and on Saturdays. And, he could keep five cents of his weekly earnings – the rest would go to support the household.

The boy returned to the man and woman and proudly announced that he’d accept their job, “Just let me know what to do.” The man smiled at the boy, said he was glad to hire him and was also impressed that he’d made sure to ask his mother’s permission. “Come stand here. Let me show you what to do.”

But the man was again interrupted by the woman, she whispered something else the boy couldn’t hear. The man looked at the by once again and nodded. “Come with me, what is your name?

Claudio.

Come with me, Claudio, I’ve got something else for you to do.

The man took Claudio to the back of his warehouse where stacks of boxes were lined up. He showed Claudio the boxes – full of bottles of a red sauce – and then showed him stacks of labels and an old, hand-operated table-top labeling machine. “Here, you’re going to put labels on all these bottles.” The man taught the boy how to slip the label through the machine to apply glue and then where to stick the label – by hand – onto each bottle. He then instructed the boy to repeat the process and, after watching him successfully label a few bottles, walked away satisfied the boy would do a good job.

So began my father’s more than thirty year association with Pico Pica, the “Family” business; an Era. That job introduced him to the Flores’s (the man and woman, owners of the Pico Pica) and to my mother – who he met a few short months later. It also started a thirty-year family history of every single male member of the family working for the Pico Pica; ending with me – labeling bottles in the Summer of 1972. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of my father waking me at 4:30 on Saturday mornings to go and help him make a batch of chili – Pico Pica. We’d make a batch of forty-two cases of chili sauce – 1,008 bottles – and then head to el Tepeyac for lunch. I was never paid for this work, but the extra money help our family.

My father shared this history with me on our last visit to Dodger Stadium, just like he has many, many…many times before. And it’s interesting – but not surprising – how he can remember something that happened sixty-two years ago so clearly yet not remember what we discussed yesterday. This means we rarely discuss anything current, nor do we talk about what he watched on television or read in the newspaper that day; he just doesn’t remember. We talk, or rather, I listen to his memories. I know my father doesn’t recall having told me his stories before, and sometimes it’s frustrating to hear them repeated – two or three times a night. But I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be to have no recollection of what you did earlier in a day; my dad shows some diminished frustration, but no anger, and for that I can be thankful.

As we drove home after the game, happy for a Dodgers win and a spectacular fireworks show, my father kept staring out the window, at the route we’d traveled so many times before. At last, he looked over at me, bewildered, and asked “Son, where are we? I don’t recognize any of this.”

Boners Knockers

Trouble with the Curve

So the wife and I went to see the latest Eastwood movie – his politics notwithstanding. The film is titled “Trouble with the Curve” and I was amazed they’d made a movie about my dad! I wasn’t even aware Clint knew him! Eastwood’s character bears a striking resemblance to my father: aging, trouble hearing and seeing, rough around the edges, rigidly set in his ways and unafraid  to let you know his are the right ways. I couldn’t stop laughing, not because the film is funny but because it was funny how accurately the film displayed my father.

Eastwood’s character knew what was right and what wasn’t, he could defiantly – and righteously  – defend his position. But when left defenseless, the character simply allowed that he was an old man, too old to change; and that’s my dad. He has a firm conviction of what’s right without tolerance for other’s perspectives. Being reared with such narrow tolerances was tough, particularly since he always seemed to be proven right. And while he’s softened considerably as he’s aged, that conviction – that authority – remains. It’s the way he’s always been – at least for as long as he’s been my dad.

It strikes me that we don’t see that conviction – that authority figure – much anymore; we’re a society that too often bends its convictions to get along. And I believe we’re poorer for it.

As hard as my father was on his children, he was always harder on himself, efforting to fulfill an almost impossible ideal. Living up to those convictions. He did it daily, without complaint or self-pity – to raise his children to a better life than his own. It was his lot…to be the provider and that authority figure.

As difficult as my rearing was, I’m grateful for it, hardened by it and comfortable because of it. My father’s narrow tolerances, unyielding expectations and total lack of encouragement have made for an easier acceptance of adulthood. And, I suppose, that’s what every child should hope for.

I recommend the movie. Go see it, get to know my dad.

For the last time this season, he and I will be headed to the ballpark Friday night, let’s see what high jinks we can get into.

Boners Knockers everybody