EPISODE FIVE: THE THINGS WE LEAVE BEHIND
It was the first Wednesday in May. The voice on the other end of the line belonged to my older stepbrother, Stephen, a former Green Beret who now works as a private pilot. The kids were finally asleep, and I had just settled into my reading chair. "I regret to inform you that your dad died earlier this evening," said Stephen in a tone that made me think this was not the first time he had delivered bad news.
My initial concern wasn't for me. I was sad for my son, Nicholas. I knew my wife, Honor, and I could handle our six-year-old's spiritual questions ("Does he have wings now?") and even the technical ones ("Does it hurt when you're cremated?"). But what concerned me was my dad's legacy - what bits of my father would I be able to pass on to my son.
My dad's death was not a shock. I had spent the Sunday before he passed away at his house in Charlotte, North Carolina. He had been in the final throes of Alzheimer's disease. During that last visit, his bones were visible through his flesh. He would drift in and out of a mental fog. His final words to me were: "Milkshake. Where's my milkshake?" Trust me, this wasn't a Rosebud Moment. He loved coffee milkshakes, and even after he refused to eat, he still had a taste for them.
I don't like to remember my father the way he looked during our final visit. And I prevented Nicholas from seeing his grandfather during this steep and mercifully swift decline. I didn't want my son's memories of his grandfather to be of a senile old man, who reeked of incontinence. So I would have to mythologise my father. Using old pictures, winsome anecdotes and a few keepsakes, I would be the architect of a Soviet-worthy deception. Dads can have warts and all. Grandfathers should be iconic.
I wanted Nicholas to see my father as I had as a boy - a banker in a crisp khaki suit, pink Oxford cloth shirt, regimental-striped tie, who drove elegant cars like a Jaguar E-type, a Ford Mustang and then a 1969 Porsche 912. I prefer to remember my dad's skin as permanently tanned from the tennis court. His
hair Brylcreemed. His remarks sarcastic. His watch the same Rolex that my mother - his first wife - bought him on their honeymoon to the Caribbean.
"How could this be allowed to happen?" was Nicholas' response when Honor and I broke the news to him. "This is not fair," he said as he started to cry. "He didn't even come for Christmas this year. You said we were going to visit him this spring. Now I won't ever get to see him again."
I could have gone a few different ways here...
Grandpa Scott as Angel: "You will see him again. He'll be waiting for you in heaven."
Grandpa Scott as Celestial Disciplinary Tool: "You may not be able to see him, but he will be looking down on you from heaven. He'll know when you have been good and done your homework, and when you have been bad."
Instead, I chickened out.
"Do you think your little sister is too young to come to the funeral?" I said, knowing that ever since the arrival of our daughter Alexandra in the summer of 2009, Nicholas has used her immaturity the way a nightclub bouncer wields a velvet rope. "Maybe it should just be you who gets to go on the plane with Mommy and Daddy..."
"Yes, Daddy, you're right," he said, as the sobbing abated and his mood turned alarmingly festive. "I mean, she's just a baby. She would just be crawling around at the place where they bury Grandpa Scott. And if there was a fancy dinner at a restaurant? Who would watch her?" I was both a bit disturbed and impressed by his ability to conjure up this Michelin-worthy, gastro-frivolity into an otherwise grim couple of days.
Sadly for Nicholas, there was no four-star outing, just a family dinner at a local tavern. He arose the morning of the funeral and proceeded to dress in an outfit he had picked out for himself. It was something I had seen my own father wear countless times - blue blazer, khakis, a blue and white striped shirt and a striped tie. Sure, I had bought Nicholas the clothes, but it made me wonder about whether some of my father's sartorial DNA had been passed down.
The funeral was at the local military cemetery, as Dad had attained the rank of captain in the US Army before he started working on Wall Street. The cemetery consisted of green fields and hillsides with rows of identical white tombstones. The ceremony was brief. My younger stepbrother, Jay, who had been a
minister before starting his own roofing business, led us in prayer. I gave the eulogy, and my elder stepbrother presented me with an American flag tightly folded into a triangle as a token of my father's service to his country.
I handed the flag to Nicholas. "Hold it tight. Don't let it touch the ground," I whispered to him as I carried the container holding my father's ashes to his grave.
"I didn't even see a bone. Not one bone. Just a box," Nicholas whispered his disappointment in my ear as we walked back to the car. On the ride back from the cemetery to my dad and stepmother's house, I looked back at Nicholas. He was asleep in his booster seat, his grandfather's flag clutched to his chest. He flew home that night with my wife. I stayed in town to sort through my dad's possessions. I was hoping to unearth something - a pair of cufflinks, a belt buckle - which I could set aside for Nicholas as a remembrance of his grandfather.
Totems sometimes get a bad wrap as materialistic. Experiences trump things, or so the argument goes. But totems have their value. When I leave the house each morning, I wear my father's battered Rolex on my wrist (he gave it to me when I became engaged to my wife). I also carry a small silver keychain with my initials engraved on it. My mother gave it to me when I was eight years old, and she had to start working full-time to support us. The key chain never lets me forget the sacrifices my mother made for me. The watch - all that remains beside myself from my parents' marriage - reminds me about the fragility of relationships, and the care a good one demands.
My son, like his grandfather, enjoys history, so I set aside an old oil painting of Thomas Jefferson that once hung in my dad's TV room. I stumbled across a collection of patches - the kind that boys used to wear on their jean jackets. Each was commemorating a different US space mission - the Apollo moon missions, Spacelab, the launch of the first Space Shuttle. I found the vintage graphics from the late Sixties and Seventies cool, and so I tucked them away for Nicholas as well. Finally, I found a model of a Sopwith Camel, the British World War I fighting plane. When I arrived home to our apartment in New York, Nicholas was asleep, so I placed the plane on the top of his bookshelf where my son had laid his grandfather's flag to rest.