When Jerome Rothfeld's daughter called telling me her father had passed at the venerable age of 88, we spent countless hours, as close friends often do, talking through the rigors of holding on and letting go, our late-night conversations an effort to soothe her deepening sorrow.
He was a loving husband and father of three. A grandparent of six, an unsung hero of World War II, and a retired salesman who loved bocce ball and strolling through farmers markets. Above all, he adored his family.
An extraordinary, ordinary man, much like my own dad, with one notable difference: My father died more than three decades ago, sadly missing out on the pleasures of grandchildren, great-grandchildren and growing old with my mother. With Father's Day around the corner, I close my eyes and travel back in time, landing on the front porch where I grew up and seeing the past as if it were right in front of me:
The "for sale" sign had gone up a few months after he died. Everything about the house felt different now. The smell of fresh cut grass was gone. Flowerbeds once filled with pansies and sweet peas were now mostly empty, except for the few wilted potted plants still in their foil wrapped containers, leftovers from the memorial service.
As I helped Mom tidy up for the arrival of Realtors, I walked through each room, scanning walls top to bottom, overlooking cobwebs I was supposed to be dusting, and noting over and again that my dad was nowhere to be found. His penholder bearing the Manny, Mo and Jack logo and holding a pair of leaky ballpoints was missing. Three ironed and starched Pep Boys shirts still hung in his bedroom closet, at the very far end behind his suits.
The day he returned from the doctor's appointment, his body language and demeanor were notably different. He looked defeated and frail, his face expressionless as he walked through the front door. The house quivered as if the foundation might be cracking.
I watched through the corner of my eye as my mother stumbled down the hallway in search of her bedroom door. Later she told me it was the longest walk of her life. Her world was crumbling. Despite my youthfulness, I could see that they had received a pair of life sentences: his was terminal cancer; hers was a rude awakening that in less than six months, she would be widowed.
Thank God the medical supply people took back the metal-framed hospital bed that barely fit through our tiny front door. It took three of us hoisting it up the porch, yanking open the screen door, maneuvering the wood door so it wouldn't get scratched or dented, pushing and pulling at various angles, all the while trying to be discreet so we wouldn't disturb my father. Failing miserably, cursing and shouting orders to one another, no one listening to a word being said, we were all teetering with emotions ready to explode.
That entrance had seen better days. Several summers earlier, there had been a wild summer storm with lightning and thunder. My dad suggested we congregate in the living room to sleep on the floor with the door wide open. Despite the heat, my sisters and I lined ourselves up sardine-style as close as possible to the edge of the doorway. Mesmerized by the light show, savoring the occasional breeze, we waited patiently for the smell of fresh summer rain.
The downpour was always the grand finale, luring us to sleep. None of us campers, it was as close as we ever got to outdoor living. In our minds, we were sleeping under the stars, entertained by Mother Nature, with a protective father watching over us.
There had always been music in our house. Like clockwork, John Philip Souza marches blasted over the hi-fi every Sunday morning. The drums and percussion vibrated through our heater vents, waking me up with a startling vengeance, like a mismatched combination of ice water and staccato notes. When the cancer worsened, the music stopped altogether. He said noise hurt his skin.
Life in our house changed rather quickly. He began serving time in a recliner. The kitchen that once was a breeding ground for my mother's award-winning recipes soon became the dispensary for my father's restricted diet. He had his own shelf in the refrigerator: homemade yogurt and puddings — all things bland and soft on the palate. Our giant of a father who had sustained himself for years on meat and potatoes began eating meals with a teaspoon. My mother made him milkshakes that he sipped once or twice before pushing them aside and drifting off to sleep.
Our parents, it seems, are the center of gravity. It matters not — our age or stage in life. When they leave, a part of us disappears with them. Their absence is especially searing on holidays created to honor them.
This morning, I stopped to revisit that sacred place where memories come back to life and a daughter is reminded she would do just about anything to have a few more minutes with her dad.