My dad passed on last Tuesday, June 21st, following mom by a month short of five years. He was 90 and had lived a good life, almost exactly half of it in the family house in Rolando that we'd moved into on Veterans' Day 1965, a move up from the little place on College Avenue where I'd lived since I was born. For all but the last two days of it, he was insistent that he could take care of himself and didn't need anyone fussing over him.
For just over a third of his life he'd been retired, drawing a pension from the thirty years--another neatly divided third of his life--that he'd spent as a teacher for San Diego City Schools. He was a WWII veteran who'd acquired an admiration for Jeeps during his time in the European theater, and finally over the last two years of his life he owned and drove one. It fulfilled an old wish, and the only stipulation his three kids imposed was that it have an automatic transmission.
For an old man, he truly kicked butt until the final month or so. Some of his contemporaries have outlived him, but none were a match for his independence and his sheer defiance of time. A best friend of mine compared him to one of those pithe-helmeted khaki-pantsed British explorers in the old Tarzan movies, trudging along relentlessly while complaining endlessly about the heat, discomfort, and everything else. He wasn't physically imposing and I don't think anyone ever accused him of being brilliant, but he kept going and going with what he had, changing very little from mid-century to new millenium.
I'm around the old family house a lot these days, taking care of the things that have to be taken care of now that he's gone. It's almost impossible to get my mind around the concept that no one will be coming home. It seems like either he or my mom ought to come walking through the front door at some point.
We weren't a real close-knit family. Frankly, I think my folks were happier people after we kids had grown up and left. I spent much of my early career in various corners of the world, and they generally found a way to visit me wherever I was. They'd often comment that I was a good host, and about a week with them before they'd move on to visit the rest of whatever country I was in was pleasant and about enough. Mom would say during the rare times I was living in San Diego during the '80s and '90s that she worried more about me then than when I was thousands of miles away. Perhaps, at some level, we felt more comfortable when we were out of each others area of immediate concern.
During those years abroad, I didn't have the feelings of longing or vague existential crisis that many of my fellow ex-pat's would describe. San Diego always had a kind of reality for me; it was home. It was a place I could always go back to and find a place in. I'm sure it was because my folks were there, living in the same house and doing pretty much the same things, feeling healthy and vital, and keeping me up on the local news. In those days before email, we wrote to each other regularly, and the letters were always full of news clippings and photos and such. Once in awhile an old friend would stop by and ask that they say hello to me in the next one. A time or two, they compiled cassette tapes with contributions from several of my friends.
That sense of permanance and stability--and a place to return to--is gone now. I woke up the morning after my dad passed away, in the futon bed I'd set up in my sister's old room during the last couple of days, and almost immediately found myself contemplating consciously that it was the very first day of my life that neither of my parents were in the world with me. I recalled that need I had as a little kid to believe that someone stronger and wiser than myself cared about me.
I walked the few blocks up to Clay Park, the site of the school where I first learned to read and first discovered some of the wonders of the world beyond the college area of San Diego. For the past twenty-five years or so, I've enjoyed sitting on the grass there from time to time, visualizing the places I've lived or visited, imagining exactly which direction they are from that point in the park and what I would pass over to get to them. I'd wonder what the people I knew in each place might be doing at that moment.
This time, though, all I felt was alone.