This week would have been my mother’s birthday, and I found myself thinking about my dad.
Isn’t it amazing how objects and events can trigger memories, can arouse feelings of grief and joy. For me, one of those triggers was the poinsettia display on our church’s Sunday altar. Poinsettias were one of my mother’s favorite flowers and she received one as a birthday gift every year. A green thumb, she kept her poinsettias alive for years by resting them in 14 hours of darkness every night. I remember once my daughters were spending the night with my parents and a fight broke out—over which girl got the honor of putting the “per-setta” to bed. Poinsettias will always bring sweet memories of my mother, watering can in hand, and her December birthday.
But the other trigger came as I returned home from church. Reaching in to the coat closet, my hand swiped against something distinctively soft, transporting me to a December eight years ago.
On that December afternoon in 2011, I had taken my father shopping for my mother’s birthday. It was a tumultuous time in my life. I don’t remember what was going on at work, but it was stressful. My college-age daughter was finishing the semester and preparing to be home. My 15 year old was in the throes of exams, and my 10 year old seemed to have Girl Scouts outings, friend parties and school events at every turn. Whirling through my mind were errands I needed to run, gifts I needed to buy, breads I needed to bake.
My father had started having symptoms of what we then thought was Parkinson’s Disease earlier that year and had to stop driving. Arriving at the mall, I debated where I should park. I offered to let him off at the door, but he insisted he could walk—ever the gentleman, ever the protector, not wanting me to walk by myself. Finally parked, I immediately regretted my decision not to drop him off, as we moved at a snail’s pace, our shuffles punctuated by the cell phone constantly dinging in my pocket.
As much as I loved my father, and I did—tremendously—I am ashamed to admit that this outing was yet another task on my list. My mind racing, I was calculating how much I could get accomplished once I got home. Half days off work were so precious.
Inside the store, we wandered aimlessly. I held up purses, scarves, sweaters but to each item my dad shrugged his shoulders, a blank affect on his face. Replacing a blouse I had pulled off the rack, and stealing a look at my phone—numerous missed messages—I turned around and my dad was gone. A slight sense of panic flushed over me; dad had not been himself for the past few months, sometimes wandering, often confused. I power walked through racks and around corners until I found him.
He was stroking a faux fur stole and humming softly to himself. I came up beside him, linking elbows, and it was obvious he had not noticed I was gone.
“This is beautiful, isn’t it?” he asked, adding, “Like your mama.”
He looked at the price tag and then held it out for me to review. I could tell that numbers were starting to dance in that brain that had always had an affinity for figures.
“Is this ok?” he asked me. I nodded, gulping back a tear as I watched him run his hands over that fur.
“Is this for a special lady?” the saleslady asked, smiling at my cute little dad in his corduroy beret.
“Oh yeah,” he said, “my bride.”
He handed her his YMCA card and then, realizing that was wrong, turned and handed me his wallet.
“Can you help me sis?”
The following week when Mom unwrapped Dad’s birthday gift, delighting over how beautiful the stole was, Dad locked eyes with me and grinned. Nothing said but volumes spoken.
That stole is now in the back of my coat closet and there it will remain—a bit of extravagant plush ready to evoke sweet memories. I wish I could visit my younger self with the ringing cell phone, the kids’ activities, and the work pressures and tell her to push the world away and focus on the shuffling man whose hand was ever warm in mine.
This holiday season, perhaps there’s an older relative who needs help shopping or just needs an investment of time. I hope that you’ll take a breath, find patience deep inside where you think there is none, and reside in the present, knowing that clasped hands release and moments fade into memories.
And I hope there’s fur in your closet and poinsettias on your fireplace—poignant, perfect prompts.