You probably can’t predict when the reversal happens. I only realized it this week, after 44 years. The moment came when I was the one to worry about my father instead of just him worrying about me.
My father and I went out for a walk in his neighborhood to water plants for a friend who was away. As twilight fell, pastels spilled over the sky. The lake mirrored the dusky pinks and purples so we were awash in color as we strolled the half-mile distance to the neighbor’s house.
The path next to the lake was smooth with even, dark asphalt. His black-and-white dog sniffed and trotted by our side. She was not a puller. She gave him no trouble. Midway, I took her leash and it felt easy in my hands, as if I were just carrying a leash.
We crossed the road to walk up six blocks to the house where the thirsty plants waited. Cars started to use their headlights. Porch lights and street lights flickered on. We were almost to the house.
Once we arrived, he turned on the house and showered each plant in order. Marigolds, hanging plants, pansies, tomatoes. Each one got a drink. He looked at each plant as he watered it, letting the liquid soak into the soil.
There was no hurry in him. He focused and stayed quiet, moving from one to the next. He worked as if he had all the time in the world to care for this garden.
Once he finished, we decided to walk back through the neighborhood instead of walking down to the path by the lake. The sunset colors were gone. Every car had headlights on.
I listened to my dad’s footsteps. Worry gripped me. I saw uneven edges to the concrete sidewalk that could catch his feet. I noticed snake-like branches strewn about as tripping hazards. The curb seemed too high for comfortable stepping when we crossed streets. Grass patches threatened to be slippery.
It was not always this way.
At 6’2”, he was a man others looked up to. He built a career that took him around the world from modest beginnings. His own father—my grandfather—had gone as far as 8th grade. My father hoped to finish high school and perhaps become a carpenter. A child of the Depression, he wasn’t afraid of hard work. He started delivering papers at age 11. Almost everyone took the paper in the 1940s. Then he worked as a brick layer and saved enough to buy his own car at 16.
He took a test in high school. Because of his test results, two people came from the school to his house. They told his parents—my grandparents—that he needed to go to college. He was too smart not to. My grandparents said OK and my dad enrolled at UCLA. Those two people—whose names we don’t remember—redefined his life.
After completing his engineering degree, he applied his intelligence to the world of work with a flourish. He holds about a dozen patents. During the years I was growing up, he was an executive.
In tailored suits and Italian shoes, he stood tall and strode with large steps. He took care of our finances and arranged multiple moves across the country when his work brought us to a new place. I was used to him being in charge. He was the most powerful person I knew.
Yet I doubt if he felt as powerful as he seemed. We’re hierarchical creatures, prone to look toward our superiors. Even as vice president of a company, he kept his eye on the president, board of directors and stockholders who wielded power over him.
I know he underestimated his effect on me. He had no idea that his influence was like the sun. I grew larger in his attention and wilted in its absence. Neither of us understood how much I needed him.
It has only been the past 15 years that I have been able to see him for all that he is. He smiles and tells me how proud he is of me and his grandson.
Retirement has been good to him. Away from the pressures of rushing to catch planes and make meetings, he relaxes in the glider by the sliding glass door. He soaks in contentment. The sunlight drenches him while he sits, gliding forward and back, the lap blanket I crocheted for him on his legs.
A newspaper rests on the ground around him in sections. “This paper keeps getting thinner,” he says. But it doesn’t seem like he minds it. He accepts it as he accepts all the happenings of the world and in his body, including an inevitable skeletal shrinking. Now he grazes the 6-foot mark.
With every passing year, he becomes part of a rarer group, those who have seen more than eight decades.
Most of his friends are in their 80s like him so it’s getting harder to socialize. Some can’t make it up the stairs. Some are too ill to go out. Some struggle with dementia, day after day fading away from their own stories. About one friend, my dad says, “He used to be so witty. He used to make us laugh every time we saw him.”
That’s gone. Like the strength of youth we don’t know we have and vigorous relationships that feed us like thick oak tree roots.
With so many decades on earth, it gets harder to find the threads of thoughts and follow the strands of deep conversations. A quiet sets in.
“My mind isn’t what it used to be,” he says.
“Are you at peace with that?” I ask.
“Yes. I’ve had a good life. I accept that this is what it is to get old.”
As we walk, I hear his breathing. The night announces itself and makes it known that the sun has left. My worry grows to uncomfortable proportions. I wonder how far away home is.
I take his arm to steady myself in my worry more than he needs me to take it. I want to be there in case of unforgiving sidewalks, slick grass and tricky sticks lying in wait to trip a gentle soul.
How much I wish I could always be there, at his side to defend against the ever changing world. It speeds up. Fat buildings crowd in against one another while the newspaper gets thinner.
We walk toward the house. I recognize the block and know we’ll see his yellow porch light soon to draw us near.
I can’t always walk with him. I have to go back to my own life of rushing and meetings. As I hold his arm and we walk toward home, I pray,
God bless this man, my father.
Keep him safe on his path.
Give him clarity and joy.
And if he must walk a difficult path,
give him strength.
And if he must face a blurry time of
give him peace.
God bless this man, my father.
May he know that his true home
is in my heart.