Saturday, April 18, 2009

More Than A Movie

On my last visit with my father, he wanted to see Kevin Costner's "Dances with Wolves." I was floored. My father was an action man, he considered movies a waste of time.

Plus, his eyesight was failing him. He had just turned 80, and although very strong physically, had senile macular degeneration. He could not see directly in front of him, only his peripheral vision worked. But he wanted to go to "Dances," something about the buffalo and wide open vistas of the West.

Another thing, he wanted to pick up my niece, L. What? This man who insisted that his children go to school unless we were practically in the hospital? But I complied, going to L.'s teacher and blurting out his request. I had grown up with this woman. She laughed and said "no problem." L. was thrilled. She got out of school before lunch to go to the movies!

So, my father took one arm and my 10-year-old niece the other as I made my way from the bright lobby into the dark, nearly deserted theater. I actually couldn't see, but shuffled to a row and settled them in on either side of me. One questioned me about this, the other about that, and I explained the scenes on the huge screen as best I could.

And I was mesmerized. I would never have gone to this film on my own initiative. I've never cared for Westerns. But there were many layers to this tale about inadvertent Union Army hero Lt. John Dunbar, whose assignment to a remote outpost in the wilderness of the Dakota territory changes him forever.

It was a wonderful afternoon. I had often roamed with my father as a child through woods and fields, on hunting trips, through small towns exploring. But this was the first time we had been to a movie together since I was a very small child and we saw "The Story of Moses" at the drive-in at my mother's request.

My visit home, from Washington, D.C., in May of 1991, also was noteworthy for something my father said. This man loved to talk, and would do so with or without a conscious audience. He drove me crazy asking what I thought about, say, South Africa sanctions before I'd had a chance to pour a cup of coffee in the morning. But he rarely discussed the personal. Feelings were taboo, or at least, not interesting to him.

But on that visit, out of the blue, he told me he regretted not enjoying his children more when we were growing up. That he had been too wrapped up in making a living and allowed precious moments to slip away.

Age had mellowed him a bit, but he was volatile when my siblings and I were growing up. He was raised on a farm and probably shouldn't have left that life. He wore a suit and worked behind a desk even though he craved the outdoors. He could be the happiest person in the room or the gloomiest, and we never understood what would set off his moods.

So, when he talked about regrets, again I was floored. For the second time that visit. Because this was the closest thing to an apology I'd ever heard from my father. I didn't realize at the time how significant it was, that comment, the movie, the entire visit.

Because soon my time at home was over, and I was on a plane back to my life. Quickly these things slipped from my thoughts. And then two months later, on a Saturday morning in July, 1991, I got the call from my little sister. The one that stops time. The one you never forget.

I sat with wet hair in a white terry cloth robe, on my bed, phone to my ear. I stared out over a mass of treetops, watching planes approach National Airport just over the river in Arlington, VA. Hundreds of miles to the south in my hometown, my father had been hit by a car. He had been crossing the road after his regular morning coffee session at the "liar's table" with his friends at their favorite restaurant.

It was bad. He'd been airlifted to the hospital. It didn't look good.

He died before I could get home.

There are imponderables, still, about that day. Why did my father stop in the median, appear to see the approaching car, but then run full speed into that vehicle? A friend, who shook hands with my father and watched him walk away, saw the accident. Then at his funeral, why did two people choose then to tell me they had seen him walking too close to the road several times? He was stubborn, chaining him down would have worked, maybe. But if we had known, we could have had a chance to intervene. Maybe.

And sometimes I wish I had gotten the chance to say goodbye. I was in the air when my mother, abiding by my father's wishes, made the decision to turn off the phalanx of medical equipment keeping him artificially alive. The internal injuries were massive, his brain was destroyed, there was no hope. My sister talked some about his last hours in the hospital, so maybe being spared those images was a gift. I've never talked about any of this with my mother. We don't discuss these things.

Maybe because of this, though, every year the month of April lurks in silent menace. When it arrives, I count off the days until the 20th, his birthday.

For years I had a recurring dream: I was falling from the top of a cliff, the fall seemed to go on forever, in terrifying detail. But just before I hit bottom, my father stepped out from nowhere and caught me. Safe.

I haven't had that dream in a very long time. I guess it's gone.

But on his birthday, I watch our movie. Seeing it brings back our last great adventure and gives me some idea about where my father has gone, at least in spirit. I see a strong, brave man on a horse heading off into vast unexplored territory. The vista is one of big sky, big land. He's just gone on ahead.

And then I cry myself to sleep.


  1. This is truly a bittersweet story. Your father's death was tragic, but the special gift of the time and the movie with him, so out of character, makes it evident that you received a special kiss before parting, really a loving goodbye that you can commemorate year after year. I'm so sorry for your loss, but know that you are comforted sweetly.

  2. Yes, the trip definitely was out of character, but the movie was all him. Uncanny. And I like that, your description of it as a goodbye kiss. Thank you, Re.

  3. Isn't it odd how we think we know those that are dear to us (even when they may treat us less than we deserve) and then they do something we least expect. The movie (which I loved and saw at least 3 times when it came out) as a connection for you and your father...a mending yes....I am glad you had that day...where he opened up to you in his way. I am so sorry for what happened to him, and your not getting to be there for your goodbye to him. I too did not get to say my goodbyes. It haunts me.