I didn’t even check my voicemail when I got out of the hair salon, because I could see that my sister had tried to call me twice in a matter of minutes, which means “serious family business.” I didn’t even really need to ask what it was about. My father has been in frail health for decades, and in very bad health for the last few years, and this is just one of those phone calls where you know what you will hear.
We are all relieved that Dad had a massive heart attack and died instantly. He never wanted to be in a nursing home–who aspires to that status, anyway?–and in large part due to the selfless efforts of Joyce, my stepmother, he avoided that sad coda.
I could go on about my father’s many wonderful qualities; I could go on about the stuff that was less than wonderful. Families are complicated; love is hard. I think I’d rather capture the memories that surfaced while my sister was talking. My dad was many other things–my stepbrother Ben calls him a “great statesman,” and I think of Dad as one of the last true liberals, a man who actually walked the walk, from the piers of San Francisco to the picket lines at segregated hotels to his last years in civil service–but he was also, very simply, my dad.
I am five years old and I have stretch pants with stirrups and a matching top. Dad takes me to the San Francisco wharf, where we sit for a little bit on the pier, and he then introduces me to one of his longshoremen friends, who asks me what 3 plus 2 is, and when I say 5, he gives me a nickel.
I am eight years old, and Dad drives me twice a week to the West Portal branch of San Francisco Public Library. We each take out the maximum at the time–8 books–which we cull from the new-book shelves, and for three days we will read and swap books, before returning the pile and getting another. Adult murder mysteries and police procedurals, to be precise. Sometimes I take a break and read things like A Secret Garden or A Wrinkle in Time, or even Mr. Potter’s Penguins, but mostly I am a gumshoe on a case.
I am of some age–who knows–and I am in a movie theater with my dad, who has an unmistakable honking laugh that instantly advertises to those that knew him that Michael Schneider Is In The House. The movie has its funny moment, Dad immediately laughs–henh henh HENH HENH HENH!–and then there is a pause and everyone else laughs at his laughter, and I am not even embarrassed because it is funny.
I am having dinner at Dad’s house (where? when? I do not recall) and I mention going to services at Glide Memorial. Dad pauses thoughtfully, and says in his trademark stammer, “Oh yeah, Cecil Williams. Buh-buh-back in the 60s we were arrested together for puh-picketing the Puh-Palace Hotel.”
It is the 1980s, and in their house on Douglas Street, Dad has a ficus he calls Benjy that is now roughly the size of a small oak tree. Joyce says she that when Dad brought Benjy home she had expressed great skepticism that Dad (no green thumb) could tend a plant, and that whenever Dad showed off Benjy, he wore what Joyce called his “shit-eating grin.”
It is 1987, and Dad is taking a trip in Europe and stops to visit me in the Huhnsruck where I am stationed in the Air Force. I pick him up and then become lost… lost… lost in the foggy roads late at night. I worry he will be angry at me, but he is patient and sweet. The next day I show him how just a few seconds on very low in my newfangled microwave oven can take the chill off those delicious German cold cuts, bringing them to perfect room temperature, and he is suitably impressed. I hope I took him to the Hotel Morbach for lamb mit spargel, or at least to our local Backerei.
It is 2004, and Sandy and I are in Dad and Joyce’s living room (during their brief relocation to Exeter), and when we show them our marriage certificate, my father is so excited he immediately trots to the next room to make a copy on his inkjet printer-copier.
It is early 2009 and I am waiting for my father at Old Ebbitt Grill (he and my stepmother relocated to DC a few years ago, after the Exeter Experiment). The restaurant is very crowded and I am worried because he is so frail. I see the crowd part, like the sea parting for Jesus, and there is my father, toddling very slowly with his cane, grinning as he sees me at the table. The service staff are all smiling at him, perhaps in part because he is wearing an Obama button the size of a dessert plate.
There would be one more dinner a few months later at Old Ebbitt Grill (where he enjoyed crab, wine, and buttered bread with abandon, and I’m so glad he did–and Joyce was greatly amused by a pun I made about Proust), and that would be my last memory of Dad. He was wearing his Obama button, pinned to his khaki windbreaker, and he was smaller than ever, and tottered very slowly to and from the table, with long pauses between steps; and the service workers tilted their heads, smiled his way, and ensured he traveled without harm; and he still grinned when he saw me.