The wheelchairs were huddled across the patio under patches of weak sunlight that filtered through the pines on this unusually mild November day. A nurse moved among them dispensing meds. She recognized me and smiled, then bent to help an old man struggling with his headphones. A plastic poppy dangled from his food-stained lapel.
Occasional wisps of conversation drifted to me but they were muted. Possibly most were in another place, preoccupied with memories born from the unseasonable warmth on furrowed faces. My father’s was not among them.
There was no answer to my knock on his door so I entered quietly. Dad was asleep, curled up on the nearest bed with his back to the door, whereas the farthest was once again unoccupied, its faded mattress streaked with sunlight. And as I crossed the room quietly to sit and rest a moment, the sunlit dust motes dancing in the quiet air stirred a memory of a moment in Ireland many years before.
* * *
I'd driven down from Dublin with my friend Tim to a village in County Wicklow, allegedly my grandfather's birthplace. At lunch we'd lingered over a second Guinness until the barman had a few minutes to chat. Then explaining our interest in anything to do with our family history, he nodded toward an elderly man nursing a pint on a corner bench.
“Talk to old Patrick there. If anyone would know of your folks, it’s him.” Patrick smiled us over. We explained it was rumored that Mom's father had been born here. With the name, he brightened and chuckled at my raised eyebrows.
“Lad, your people farmed a good bit of this valley at one time". He continued, "And I do recall Granda saying that during the famine, they sold off a good bit of grazing land just to keep food on our tables. You can be proud of them indeed.”
Since my sister always bugged me for names and dates to add to her precious family tree, I then inquired where some of our kin might be buried. And with Patrick’s directions, thirty minutes later we’ve arrived at the local church...still open for services but much in need of repair.
The nearer grass surrounding the church had been mowed but the adjacent cemetery and grave sites were overgrown with brush and brambles. Also, the Irish climate is not kind to limestone engravings so a century had rendered most of of the names illegible. We finally found a sole crypt almost hidden in a clump of yews.
Considering Patrick's story of our kin's relative prosperity, maybe here lay at least a few of our family, though no way to easily verify it. But as I peered through the rusted grating on the door, the sun broke through for a moment and from the opposite window outlined two stone biers.
Dust specks hung in the air and there on the nearer lay small gray fragments, possibly a wreath placed there ages past. Later that day as we drove away, I mused to Tim on how little we know of those to whom we owe our existence. That wreath now disintegrated into tiny fragments spoke to me more than any inscriptions...the grave claims not only our body but our narrative and our remembrances and essentially our very essence.
* * *
A passing cloud darkened Dad’s room and brought me back to the present. But the vague sadness of that recalled sunlit bier in Ireland was replaced with a resurgence of grief without a source…until a wisp of memory of my mother struggled to the surface. She had died thirty years earlier...and now so much of her reality was almost beyond my recall.
She had once lit and filled my childhood world with wonder, and later as an adult our re-connection always felt instantaneous even after lengthy separations. And awareness of that loss may be why for almost an hour I sat and watched my father sleep...as if to hoard his presence...knowing eventually there could creep in another nameless emptiness.
When a hall buzzer sounded, Dad stirred. Sensing me, he smiled hello with his usual lopsided grin and struggled to sit up. “It’s himself, isn't it?” I didn’t have to answer.
Then, “Charlie, I just had the strangest dream. It was Wilfred sitting right where you are now. Saw him clear as the day he left on the train with his regiment.” I thought, that would have been 1916 when Dad was fourteen, two years before his brother my Uncle Wilfred died in a trench in Belgium.
My father’s life had not been untroubled. Over its span he had grieved the death of six siblings and one child and had mourned two wives. Also, two of his roommates had died within the past five years, the latest only recently. Granted he'd often complain of their quirks but now their absence seemed an insult...because death had ignored him once again.
But Dad still enjoyed visitors and particularly a bit of gossip. However he surprised me this particular Sunday, “Son, I’m sorry but I'm a bit too tired to chat much. Any chance you could come again Tuesday, after supper, eh? That’s bath day and I do chipper up some."
Lying back down with his head on the pillow, came his customary, “Now don't do anything I wouldn’t do”. I responded with my usual and a smile, “That gives me a fair bit of leeway, Dad". But he wouldn’t see the smile...he was almost blind now.
* * *
Soon after his breathing steadied and his face relaxed. The room had now cooled with the fading light so I covered him with the tattered comforter he and my mother had shared for forty-one years. From the door his outline already blended into the dusk. But I do remember that I whispered, 'So long, Pop'.
Two days later when I arrived home from work, there was a message. Dad had not found his way down to dinner...he had slipped away with Wilfred.
Leaving his son. A gray remembrance.
* * *