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 unseasonal 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. The farthest was again unoccupied, its faded mattress streaked with sunlight...and as I crossed the room quietly to sit and rest a moment, the dust motes in the quiet air stirred a memory of my visit to 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. Explaining we were interested 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 remember my Granda saying when the famine came, they sold off a fair amount of grazing land to keep food on tenants' tables. You should proud of them.” Since my sister always bugged me for names and dates to add to our family tree, I promptly asked where some of our kin might be buried.
With Patrick’s directions, thirty minutes later we’re pulling into the local churchyard. It was still open for services but much in need of repair. The nearer grass surrounding the church was mowed but the remainder of the cemetery and grave sites were overgrown with brush and brambles. And the Irish climate is not kind to limestone engravings so a century had rendered most of them illegible.
We finally found a lone crypt in a clump of yews. Considering Patrick's story of prior family prosperity, maybe here lay at least a few of my kin. There was no way to verify it. But as I peered through the rusted grating on the door, the sun broke through and a ray from the opposite window outlined two stone biers. Dust speckles hung in the air. And on the nearer bier were a few small gray pieces…possibly a wreath that had been laid there ages past.
As we drove away later that day, I mused to Tim on how little we know of all those to whom we owe our very existence. The wreath now disintegrated into tiny crumbling fragments had spoken to me more than any inscriptions...that 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 past...and now so much of her reality was almost beyond recall.
She had once lit and filled my childhood world and later as an adult even after lengthy separations our re-connection always felt instantaneous. And awareness of that loss may be why for the next hour I sat to watch my father sleep...as if to hoard his presence knowing there would eventually creep in another nameless emptiness.
When the 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, “Donnie, 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 in 1916 when Dad was fourteen and two years before 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. Two of his roommates had died within the past five years, the latest only recently. Granted he had often complained of their quirks but now their absence was almost an insult...because death had ignored him once again.
However Dad still enjoyed visitors with their gossip but on this day he surprised me, “Son, I’m sorry but seems I'm a bit too tired to chat much. Any chance you could come Tuesday evening after supper, eh? That’s my bath day and I do chipper up some."
Then lying back with his head on the pillow came his customary, “Now don't do anything I wouldn’t do”. And I responded with my customary and a smile, “That gives me a fair bit of leeway, Dad". He wouldn’t see the smile...he was almost blind now.
* * *
Soon after his breathing steadied and his face relaxed. The room had cooled with the fading light so I covered him with the tattered comforter that he and my mother shared for forty-one years. From the door, his outline had already blended into the dusk. But I do remember 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 that evening...he had slipped away with Wilfred.
Leaving his son. A gray remembrance.
* * *