Thursday, November 26, 2009

Fathers & sons


This year, Derek was more anxious than usual about his high school reunion. It was about the only time he had occasion to make it back to his home state.

He’d already attended his 10th and 20th reunions. But this was different. This would be his final reunion.

The timing of his reunion was opportune–coming so, close, as it did, to his cancer diagnosis. It would be a chance to tie up some loose ends–or so he hoped–before he had to bid this world farewell.

It would also be an opportunity to spend some precious, undivided time with his two teenage sons, Bryce and Brian. Give them some “Dad time” to remember him by, when he was gone.

Perhaps this is when he’d break the news to them. He hadn’t told anyone else. Not even his wife.

Outwardly, the disease had yet to present itself–except for some fatigue, as well as pain. But the pain was something he could manage–for now–with low doses of morphine–which he kept concealed.

Of course he intended to tell them. He had to tell them.

But people treat you differently when they know you’re dying. They become very self-conscious. They look at you differently. Tiptoe around you like you’re antique china.

He wanted a little more time with his wife and kids while things were “normal” before he let them know. After attending the reunion with his sons, he’d take his wife on a little, much needed, overdue vacation.


On the plane his sons were pleasantly distracted. Immersed in their own world. Looking at them he saw himself looking back–a younger self. Himself at their age.

But they also enjoyed the chance to take a trip with dad. To do stuff and talk about stuff a bunch of guys like to together. Learn more about dad. Where he came from. What he was like at their age. Where he went and what he did.

At the airport they got a rental car. Normally, Derek would be happy to let his older boy Bryce do the driving. But, of course, he knew the area better than they did. And this was a chance to retrace his roots.

Much was still familiar, but much had changed. Back when he was a kid, the area had lots of farms and ranches and woods. But over the years it had become far more urbanized.

He made a few wrong turns driving to the motel, because the roads he remembered from his youth were not the same. It was an odd sensation–to oscillate between the shock of recognition and the shock of what was barely recognizable. Even when you went back, there was no going back.


Next morning, they drove to his grandmother’s house. At least, that was the plan. He wasn’t sure if it was still there. And he wasn’t quite sure if he knew how to find it.

You see, he’d never driven there on his own. Back when he was a boy, his parents would drive there from time to time to pay her a visit. So he’d never seen the route from the driver’s seat. Only from the backseat.

Still, Derek was surprised by how well his childish recollections guided him. Every time he thought he was lost, he’d spot a familiar landmark.

Finally he pulled onto 29th. A narrow, tree-lined residential street. Would he remember the house?

That’s when he spotted the geraniums. He’d forgotten about her geraniums. Her bright, cheerful geraniums.

Nice to know the new owners kept her geraniums. Nice way to remember his grandma. Indeed, how many times had the house changed hands since she died? But, through it all, the geraniums continued to bloom.

His grandma loved to garden. When she wasn’t praying, or buried in her dog-eared Bible, she was in the front yard, tending her little flowerbeds. One way or another, grandma spent most of her waking days on her knees.

Maybe she loved the geraniums because she herself was like a geranium. Like a smiling summer day.

In fact, he still had her Bible, as a keepsake, in a box inside a box somewhere in the garage back home. That’s about the only thing he had to remember her by.


After lunch they drove to his old home. Parked outside, on the curb, staring at it through the car windows.

Not much of a house. Not much of a yard.

Along the fence, beside of his parents’ bedroom, there was a clump of bamboo. The bamboo didn’t really blend in with the other trees and shrubs. And his dad didn’t care that much for bamboo. It was very aggressive. Took over the whole yard if you gave it half a chance. You had to keep cutting it back. Use a herbicide to keep it under control.

He planted it there because his wife asked him to. Because she liked the sound of the rustling leaves. She liked to sit in bed with the window open to hear the sound of the breeze blowing through the bamboo leaves as she read a book or magazine.

So he did it for her. Derek’s dad was not the expressive type. He showed his love in other ways. For Derek’s dad, love was more about wordless deeds than deedless words.

Odd how staring at a clump of bamboo brought back a lost world.


They had an earlier supper before heading out to his old high school, where the reunion was held. They arrived early.

He walked around the campus with Bryce and Brian. Past a courtyard with a fountain. A dry fountain. Still dry–after all these years. Even when he was a student there, the fountain was dry. What was the point of a fountain if you never turned it on?

That fountain had a story. Someone put it there. For a reason.

They peered through windows of empty classrooms, as he told his sons about his teachers, his classes, his classmates.

He found something very evocative about a deserted schoolyard. Empty classrooms. Empty hallways. Nothing but the echo of your own footsteps. Where had all the time gone? Where had all the years gone?

At the reunion he proudly introduced his two sons to his old classmates. Some of them had hardly aged a day, while others were prematurely aged–from too much hard living.

It was disconcerting to see an old flame so burnt out. That’s not how he remembered her. On the other hand, it was amusing to see his old nemesis, the star quarterback, about two candy bars away from a walker.

Yet the grim satisfaction was abortive as it crossed his mind that his old nemesis would undoubtedly outlive him.


After the party broke up, he drove his sons to an old abandoned shopping center. He got out of the car and walked around the empty parking lot, under the glare of the sodium vapor lamps.

His sons wondered what he saw. All they saw was an empty parking lot, with cracks and weeds and potholes, in a seedy shopping center, with graffiti and broken windows.

But Derek saw a noisy lot full of Christmas trees, holiday shoppers, and gaudy decorations. When he was a boy, he and his dad used to drive there every December, on a cold snowy night, to pick out a Christmas tree from the artificial forest of cut trees lining the lot. They’d go from tree to tree, row by row, debating the merits of each specimen. Their breath a little fog-machine in the chilly out-of-doors. Haggling with the merchant over the price.

Funny the things you remember your father for. Of all the days and years, it comes down to a few iconic, unforgettable images.

How would Derek’s sons remember him when he was gone? What legacy was he leaving behind?

His own dad died of cancer when Derek was in high school. Yes, history was repeating itself.

For the first few weeks, through force of habit, his mom would set the table for three–then catch herself, and remove the placemat.

A part of Derek was sorry that she stopped. A part of him wanted to leave the table set for three. Hoping against hope that if they kept a place set for Dad, he’d show up for dinner one more time. Just one more time.

It was hard to look at that empty chair. You tried to overlook that empty chair. Tried to pretend it wasn’t there.


After Derek and the boys flew back home, he went to the garage. Started to rummage through boxes. Boxes stacked on boxes. Boxes inside of boxes. He’d open one, then another, then another.

Was it gone? Had it be accidentally discarded? Or simply misplaced?

As he removed one more box, and blew the dust away, and cut the strings, and lifted the lid, and peeled the wrapping away, there it was. Still there. Almost waiting for him to find it.

He sat down on the stepladder and began to read his grandma’s dog-eared Bible.


  1. I love your stories, Steve.

    It was an odd sensation–to oscillate between the shock of recognition and the shock of what was barely recognizable. Even when you went back, there was no going back.

    This is so true. I was raised in a small town near Boise, which I did not leave until marriage brought me here to Puyallup, Washington in 1998. The area I grew up in has exploded in population over the last 10 years and just isn't the same place as it was growing up. Truly, there "is no going back" to that special place I spent my childhood and adolescent years in.

    I hope you had a blessed Thanksgiving Day.

  2. I love them as well.

    This one brought a tear to my eye.

    I'm raising my kids in the same area where I grew up, but, as Jibbs said, and you as well, it's not the place I grew up in. It's close, but not quite.

    Your last line is one of the most hopeful lines ever written.

    Thank you.

  3. Powerful. Thanks. Grandma's "dog-eared" Bible. If the walls could talk.

  4. Daryl, me too.


    My parents are both in excellent health right now, and as vigorous as ever. Even my grandfolks are aging gracefully. I've been blessed never to have to deal with a close relative's death.

    But that will unavoidably change, I know. How can one prepare for such inexorable sadness?

    I hope God is very merciful to me when He begins to take my family members to be with Him.