I miss my dad at odd times. My father died last March. He was 72. For the 20 years before his death, he suffered from heart disease. He had two triple-bypass surgeries and more heart attacks than I can remember. Four years before he died, he had a massive coronary in the kitchen of my parents’ home in Pacific Beach. He lost oxygen to his brain for at least five minutes. He recovered, but he was never the same. At times, he seemed like someone suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s. He almost always knew where he was, but he rarely knew what day it was or what time. He could tell you details about the first car he owned in high school, but he couldn’t remember what he’d eaten for lunch.
During the weeks and months following my father’s death, I tended to remember him the way he was at the end, quiet and confused. Now, I find him coming back to me the way he was when I was younger.
A couple of weeks ago, I drove my two oldest daughters to the small Catholic academy they attend near our home in San Marcos. Rebecca, who is in fourth grade, sat in the front seat beside me. Angela, six, sat in the van’s middle seat beside 13-month-old Benjamin. Five-year-old Lucy and three-year-old Johnny whispered together in the far backseat. As I pulled into the school’s driveway, Rebecca said, “Brittany’s in front of us.”
Brittany is one of Rebecca’s classmates. As Brittany’s car slowed to a stop, Brittany’s dad hopped out of the driver’s seat. He walked to the back of the car, popped open the hatch, and pulled Brittany’s overloaded backpack from behind the backseat.
“Bye, Mom,” Rebecca said. She opened the door and hauled her backpack and lunch box out with her. I didn’t answer. “Bye, Mom,” she repeated.
Tears rolled down my face.
“What’s wrong. Mommy?” Rebecca asked.
“Brittany’s dad is wearing overalls,” I answered.
Rebecca looked puzzled.
“It makes me think about Grandpa.”
When I was in junior high, we lived at Tamarack Lodge in Mammoth Lakes. My parents managed Tamarack and a couple of other mountain lodges that sat high in Mammoth's Upper Lakes Basin. We lived an almost Tom Sawyer existence — no television, no radio. My mom worked the front desk. My dad kept everything in the rustic, 50-year-old lodge running. In the summer, he repaired roofs and dug trenches and oversaw the cleaning crews. In the winter, he drove a snowplow and walked through hip-deep snow to thaw water pipes in the lodge’s cabins.
After I dropped Angela off at her classroom, I called my sister on my cell phone. “What’s the matter?” Anita asked when she heard my voice.
“I just saw a man in overalls, and it made me think so much about Daddy,” I managed to choke out between sobs.
“And that damned pageboy haircut,” she said.
We both laughed. “What was he thinking?” I asked.
“It was the style,” she answered. After a pause, she said, “I miss him, too. I can’t tell you how many times a week, I still think, ‘I’ll have to remember that to tell Dad,’ when I hear something funny. I really miss making him laugh."
Last week, I found myself missing my dad again. This year. I’m the room mother for Rebecca’s class. My room-mother duties include purchasing the materials for the fourth-grade booth at the school’s All Saint’s Carnival. On a sunny Monday morning, I drove to Escondido alter dropping Rebecca and Angela at school and taking Lucy to preschool. I wandered the aisles at Pic-n-Save looking for buckets and red plastic roses for the St. Therese “rose toss from heaven” booth. Ben sat in the cart’s seat. Johnny ran ahead of me pointing out the Christmas toys already displayed during the week of Halloween.
“Can we get that?” Johnny asked about a yellow Tonka dump truck.
“No,” I answered.
“Can we get that?” he pointed to a drum set.
“No,” I answered.
When we’d played “Can we get that” 800 more times and I’d found the buckets and roses, we lined up at the checkout counter. While we waited our turn, Ben looked over my shoulder and smiled. I turned to see an older man smiling at Ben. The man’s hair was cut short the way my father wore his when he got older. “That’s some boy you’ve got there,” the man told me.
“Thank you,” I answered.
“Hl-I-I-I-i,” Ben said and lifted his chubby white arm straight up in the air.
“Hi,” the man said and lifted his own arm.
“That’s my little brother, Ben,” Johnny told the man.
“You must be a good big brother,” the man said to Johnny.
“Yes, I am,” Johnny answered.
While Johnny spoke with the man and Ben continued to wave, I thought of the way Johnny used to talk to my dad. One of the last times my dad came to my house, he and Johnny sat out in the backyard talking about Johnny’s yellow Tonka dump truck. My dad asked questions. Johnny answered.
When I’d paid for our purchases, I said good-bye to the man and walked out to our car. As I lifted Johnny into his booster seat, he looked at my face and asked, “Are you okay, Mommy?”
“I will be, sweetie,” I answered and gave him a hug.