What my father wanted

The Baltimore Sun

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, Calif. -- When I was a child, what my father wanted was to dance with me. He would put a nickel in the Wurlitzer jukebox and ask me to "step out" to "Moonlight Serenade." I was shy, awkward and unable to keep track of his feet. At 6, I declined in order to save myself from the uncomfortable moment.

What my father wanted was to eat fruit while standing at the kitchen sink. He would lean over the drain with grapefruit juice dripping from his chin. "You're making such a mess," Mama grumbled. "Can't you get a plate?"

"All I want is to save you dishes!" he would tease.

As I grew, what my father wanted was for his children and grandchildren never to have to worry about the future. He set aside money for our education. Later, I learned of his coming home after we were safely tucked under the covers to inform my mother of financial near-disasters. Whatever part of monetary security he could control he labored at so that we could grow up calm and unafraid in the face of life's unwelcome interruptions.

What my father wanted was to make my mother happy. He bought her sofas, shoes and station wagons. He made sure she had seats at every Dodgers game. He gave her what seemed like more love than any man could shower on a woman. All he ever asked of her was forgiveness for some sin that he would never confess to me - not even after we had been living together as adults for 12 years after her death, and sat long hours at the table talking about old times, old friends and old foibles. With a catch in his throat, he would reveal that she had forgiven him, and consequently he had lacked nothing.

What my father wanted was a woodshop so he wouldn't have to pursue his passion from the usual cluttered two-car garage. This dream he finally realized when he moved in with me and my daughters - a trade-off for having been left a widower. What he had wanted more than anything was for his true love to live forever. Her illness had been the first thing he could not fix.

What my father wanted was to build the furniture we needed for our homes. He would put the word out, "I'm ready for a project," and the phone lines would buzz with requests for coffee tables, bed frames and bookshelves. In record time, he would fashion stunning pieces that he considered flawed. "Don't look too closely," he admonished as we gaped in awe at his artistry.

What my father wanted was to understand why I had not confided in him about my unhappy marriage, something he could not mend. "I could have helped you," he pleaded. He always wanted to repair the hopelessly broken, to epoxy what otherwise lay in pieces.

What my father wanted was for his friends to age with him. One by one, they all have passed, the last one having been his childhood best friend. When they were 10, they had terrorized Hollywood. When they were 20, they both fell in love with my mother. They celebrated my father's 21st birthday in Paris, having bicycled across Europe - two lanky kids with bony knees. Zock took his own life last year, after telling my father that his dementia would drive him to do so. My father wanted him to do whatever he needed to.

What my father wanted was to be useful. At 89, when he could no longer stand in his shop, he sat with medical experts, estate attorneys and financial consultants. What he wanted was to have the answers, or "at least the questions," as he would say. Instead, the doctors told him that he had Alzheimer's, took away his car keys and prescribed more medications. What my father wanted was for those pills to take away the pain.

What my father wanted was to never go to "one of those places." He is living in one now, after I tried everything in my power to keep him at home with me. When I go to visit, he thinks we are on vacation and that I am down the hall in my own "accommodations." All my father wanted was to tell me that he didn't have enough money in his pocket to tip the help. A few weeks later, he has forgotten who I am. I have, in a sense, offered him what he once gave me: a life, albeit one in a new world not of his choosing but of his diseased mind's making. It is a world in which he is at least relaxed and not agitated, like he was in this one. It is a world in which I cannot join him.

Before we left to drive there, as he struggled so painfully to stay rooted in a life that was growing less and less familiar with each passing moment, what my father wanted was to know that I would be the same without him. It was just about the only thing that he had ever asked of me, and yet I could not give my father what he wanted.

Kathleen Clary Miller is the author of "Rose-Colored Glasses: Memories of a Southern California Life." Her e-mail is kathleencmiller@cox.net.

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