One Man’s Legacy
It was a long and exhausting ride on my bike; a straight run over four hours and not knowing if I would make it in time, or even if I wanted to, had jarred my mind as well as my body.
It was almost sundown. I stood in my father's bedroom where he lay near death, searching his face for a closeness that I wanted to know. He'd be gone soon. They said so.
My brothers left the room to get a beer allowing me time with Pop, adding he wouldn't know no different anyhow if they weren't there. Maybe not, maybe so, I thought. The hospice people said the dying know things.
Pop's buddies were still downstairs. I knew he would have been proud just hearing the thirty-two Harleys ride in, but all paid their respects and said what had to be said to Macky, their affectionate name for Joseph Michael Thomas MacDiarmuid. I closed the bedroom door to the discordant sounds.
The full-length mirror on the back revealed a compact living space with some clothing haphazardly laid about, a quilt made from bits and pieces of cloth frugally saved over the years, pushed to the foot of the bed, and Mom's lace coverlet atop my father.
Only eight steps away. I retraced a worn path in the old multi-colored wool rug to his bedside. I whispered his name with sadness and remorse. "Pop?"
His pale skin felt cool to the touch as I rested my hand on his face before lifting sweaty strands of matted hair from his forehead. His eyes darted back and forth under closed lids that never opened when my fingers hesitantly stroked the short stubble of his grayed beard. I spoke again, wishing for indifference. "Pop."
My father, the iron-worker—tough, independent, usually irascible, the big man who wasn't afraid to work hard, live hard, or ride hard.
My father, my mother's blue-eyed prince—strong, self-reliant, loyal and passionate, the only man that shared her life of hopes and dreams for over fifty-four years.
They married the summer after graduation and settled in a small area above the garage which Pop had made into an apartment; Mom always called it their "special place". When Mom was pregnant with me, they moved into the family home with Grandma Romi. My father, a millwright working the intricacies of maintaining and repairing great machines of the textile mill, later became a welder like his father when the company closed; relegated to repairing motorcycles when he wasn't riding, and drinking when he wasn't working. My mother bore two more children, raising us in the same house she had lived in all her life; keeping a good home and garden, attending church regularly.
That was the backdrop of their lives; but of their drama, I'll never really know. As children, we try to fit into the play with our own God-given scripts, but it's only when we become adults ourselves that we realize we never could...we were just part of the supporting cast.
The house seemed strangely quiet except for the hum of muffled voices occasionally broken with laughter of people performing in trying to avoid the obvious, and the sporadic creaking of the radiator under the front window. Mom used to place bread dough on that radiator to raise, but no aroma of bread rising this day, no scent of fresh herbs, just the pungent smell of disinfectant mixed with the lingering odor of illness.
I walked over to the window looking out onto the street, struggling with my conscience, wishing not to stay or having to speak; wanting to be out on the road with the wind tearing and the power of the engine beneath me with its deep-sounding, intoxicating, passionate roar. I wanted to be free from all of it, the needs, the dying, the memories; but, I knew for my life to move on, this had to be finished.
Harleys lined both sides of the street, all backed to the curb, wheels turned as sentinels evenly spaced; their last salute to their leader.
I turned and looked back towards Pop. Moonlight blending with street light threw a strange glow across numerous bottles of unknown pills and liquids on his bedside table, casting gray shadows onto their wedding picture. They were both smiling as if they would never know pain; Pop tall and slender, standing important, and Mom looking happy, eager, yet shy.
The picture was close enough for him to see it. I wondered if he thought about his life, his family...me.
I sat down beside him, taking his hand between my tanned stronger ones. The contrast was unexpected, revealing my mother's side of the family. "Descendants of the Romanies," she would say proudly.
"...and as gypsies, ever-traveling, searching for settlement, striving for a new life, all for the desire of contentment," Grandma Romi would add. Then her conclusion, "Consider the lilies of the field; they grow where they're put, but some lilies refuse to grow where they're put and take root nowhere." I thought she was referring to me.
Pop turned the business over to my brothers last year. I was to get the house. It all balances out. Pop was fair in that respect. Inheriting the house is probably a good thing; living out of trailers, motels and saddlebags felt like the gypsy life. With a sardonic laugh I thought, it is the gypsy life! Pop probably thought here was as good enough for me to settle as any, and here I'd be connected to heritage. He probably hoped I'd, at last, stay "put".
For years I've taken care of Pop's business concerns along with my brothers, and took care of Romi's funeral and helped Pop with Mom. She's in a nursing home now and doesn't know this world any more, or her prince. It was a hard thing to do and it seemed impossible for me to relate to either one of them. I felt my own soul becoming irretrievable to understand or to know.
It was also the first time I saw him cry. He said her beauty and sweetness counteracted his rough, hard nature. How true, I thought. Yet I, when young, would sneak down and sit near the bottom of the stairs in secret listening to the television shows, and sometimes hear Pop quietly call her his "dark-eyed gypsy" or his "mysterious princess". How he could have been so gentle and affectionate with her and so, so distant from us...I just don't know.
Much has changed, yet much remains the same.
The house seemed smaller. All the rooms looked overwhelmed with items passed down through the generations. This was the parlor, where women read, drank tea, chatted and crocheted; their fingers whizzing patterns that adorn most every tabletop and back of every overstuffed chair and sofa.
I remember when we kids were little, we used to climb onto Grandma Romi's lap in this room, all squeezed together in the large platform rocker listening for the rhythmic, resonant, muted squeak of wooden joints rubbing as she told of painted wagons, black horses and her long-ago travels; but I was the only one to catch the dream of faraway places and find my own magic, my own drama.
The twelve panes of leaded glass in the front door stayed intact, probably owing their survival to the shouting of, "Don't slam the door!" echoing from the kitchen all those years; and I can still hear Grandma's warning about "the ruination of your eyes," as I saw the world distort and change colors through the beveled edges.
The drab yellow kitchen had the same speckled-green, enamel-topped table; now serving as the bar littered with chips, sandwiches and empties. I remember sitting there as a child, more often in silence muzzling my anger than for food or drink, haunted by "bucking" myself up, in trying to reach the standard of my father.
Most every Friday, we'd have Grandma's herb tea with special little cakes at that table; she taking great effort to make sure half the tea remained in the pot. And after we'd finish, she'd take the remaining tea and sprinkle some in each corner of every room. Then we'd stand in a circle holding hands, and in a whisper she would say, "Peace be unto this house and with all who dwell herein. Let harmony and love abound." Pop wouldn't be there, but his cup would be placed on the table anyway.
I remember one time I was late for tea. My mother stood in the kitchen crying softly and it kind of scared me. She had the teapot in one hand and a knife in the other. She looked so lost. I didn't understand then and maybe that's why I didn't know what to do, except take the knife from her hand. Romi said her crying was good, and God would bottle Mom's tears to keep all the sadness away. I never saw her crying again after that.
In our family, everyone gathers when death comes. Most of them were here when Grandma Romi died. But for her to have peace at death, someone had to sit at her bedside until she passed. No one could do it. My brothers called me while I was in California. As the eldest, I felt I had to be there, but maybe it was because I alone understood those little threads of unknown laws and beliefs that bound her. "Death cuts down big and small; death cuts down one and all," she used to say.
I was the one to stay with our shepherd, Duke, the day he had to be put down; no one else could do it. He lay on the floor in the vet's office trying so hard to be close to me. I felt he knew it was his time. He trusted me. I held his beautiful, majestic head in my hands and kissed him like I always did every morning since he was a pup. I told him goodbye, and that I loved him. The vet administered the drug and he closed his eyes for the last time...
As I stayed with Duke and Romi, I'd stay with Pop. It wouldn't be long now, his breathing being more labored.
My shoulders ached and my neck throbbed tight. I had to talk to him. I swallowed hard, wet my lips and took a deep breath. I had to do it. I stroked his rough and callused palm, and cleared my voice. "Pop?"
I wanted him to know that I was there, and I had to know—to know if, if he was proud of me, and if, he loved me. I asked again, "Pop?"
I wanted, I needed, him to say something. It was important. My eyes burned, my throat dry, feeling strangled. I challenged my mind to become numb to everything around me except for his thin hand, now moving in mine.
My voice cracked a scratchy whisper, "Pop? Pop? It's me, Joey." Then I forced it out quickly. Everything ending needs a fair ending. I kissed his hand. "I love you, Pop."
His hand slowly tightened around my fingers as his eyes opened. Those steel blues that once were so intense, so unapproachable, only looked faded, tired, and longing. He smiled weakly and raised his hand slightly...I thought to touch my face, but no, towards the door, pointing. Then his eyes widened with a strange stare and his arm went limp; his damp breath leaving him slowly. He was gone.
I shut my eyes, my throat again closed by something unseen. I wanted to yell but I just sputtered useless sounds slamming my fists into the bed. That wrenching stab of abandonment engulfed me like all those times I wanted to be with him! There I was, that little kid of so many years ago, crying after him as he rode away all those times without me.
"No!" I gasped, holding his hand tighter, pressing against my eyes to stop the tears, the thoughts. He left again! I jerked away from him. He was the one that was free! He was the one riding free, not me! Yet, I knew the suffering was finally over for him. He never said much about it. He was like that.
I stood to leave. Romi's bedside table with her handmade doily still cradled her old Bible, and now her bed with my Mother's lace coverlet cradled my Dad. I turned towards him, closed his eyes and whispered, "Goodbye, Pop."
Drained and tired, I leaned against the corner of the dresser, thinking of how to choose my words for those downstairs. I saw some curled photos scattered about, next to their wedding picture. Almost grudgingly, I picked them up. In one, I had on his jacket and my first pair of real leather boots. I had turned seven the week before. He had forgotten the date, but not the wish for the boots.
Then, one of Pop. He looked good in his leathers and bandana, capturing in a moment's time his strength and youth; being in command; straddling power.
Underneath, a yellowed, faded photo of my first bike, The Marvel we called it, remembering how he laughed when I brought it home in the back of the pick-up. More parts were in battered cardboard boxes than connected to the bike; but I promised myself, she was going to be beautiful and the most iridescent shade of purple ever. I smiled just thinking about the effort in trying to find parts to the old Pan Head.
Pocketing the photos, I turned to leave. And there it was. I should have seen it before. Draped over the back of the chair, my father's leather jacket, his proud possession, his symbol of belonging, his pride, his mantle...
Tears rolled down my face unhindered as I gripped the jacket, holding the black supple leather tightly to my chest smelling his scent, wishing we could have held one another close just once, just once.
I stopped my raw emotions in their tracks, and took a deep breath. That was then and now is now, I thought. He'd want me to buck up. Pop would have said, "Things have to be done, Joey, and we might as well get to it."
"Okay Pop," I answered aloud and unashamed.
I put the jacket on, studying the reflection of my body in the mirror; the square shoulders still not filling the jacket like his; but the high cheekbones, the lines in my face, dark hair, blue eyes...all like his. I even put my hands in the pockets just as he used to stand; four fingers in, thumb out.
The crinkle of paper inside the left pocket surprised me. Pop never left anything in his pockets, not even a stray coin. It was smudged and folded tightly. I opened it and smoothed out the creases; his handwriting, scribbled and shaky, "This Joey's."
That's what he was pointing to; he tried to tell me. I knew at that moment he was proud of me, and he did love me...me, his first-born, his daughter, Josephina Maria Theresa MacDiarmuid.
I went downstairs wearing his leather, his pride, his mantle, his legacy.
Everyone tipped their drinks and nodded as I went towards the kitchen. I didn't have to say anything to anyone. They all knew Pop was at last riding free, and I at last, had come home.