One morning as I ate the breakfast of eggs my dad had just made for me, I watched him go about his work in the kitchen. He was cleaning up the dishes from the kids and then he wiped Tommy’s mouth with the blue sponge from the sink. I thought about how readily he’d moved in with us after Shawn’s death. For a long time, I’d just accepted the decision as a normal one. But I also knew it couldn’t have been an easy one to make. At that point, he’d been living with us for almost a year.
I watched him take a long swipe of the counter with the same blue sponge, and I noticed dozens of dark spots from the summer sun. He’d definitely been able to relax some over the past few months. Now that was gone.
I asked, “How did you decide to stay in DC?”
“I knew you’d have to move otherwise,” he said, “and I saw kids growing up who moved a lot. It wasn’t good for them.”
He was right about that. Without his move to DC, I would have relocated to Texas, where everyone in our extended family lived. His presence was vital and I told him as much. “But when did you actually decide to stay?” I asked. “Was it the night that Shawn died, or later?”
“I decided that night, yes,” he said. “For me, I look at a situation and think, ‘What do you do here? What’s best?’”
“You make it sound so rational,” I said. I thought back to that night and sitting with him in the hospital conference room immediately after Shawn died. Other than the comfort I’d felt from his presence, I didn’t remember much about the things that he did that night. He must have driven home at some point to help with the kids. Was that what he thought about on his solo ride back to our house?
“I didn’t have a plan to do this,” he said. “But if you need help, we help. If someone else in our family needed help, like Nancy or Terry, I’d get someone to be here with you for a few weeks and I’d go down to Texas to help there.”
It was all so logical for him. “Well,” I said, “I’m sure you didn’t imagine your retirement looking like this.”
“Maybe not,” he said, “but isn’t it the right thing to do?
I thought about this for a bit. Sure, his decision made sense. But I knew it wasn’t reasonable to expect someone to do what he had done. “Your life trajectory changed when Shawn died,” I said.
He looked right at me. “My life trajectory changed when your mom got sick,” he said. “It happens.”
“I know,” I said, feeling badly that I had been focused only on my loss of Shawn, and hadn’t really thought about him.
My dad seemed to read my mind. “Changes in life are inevitable. Some are just really bad,” he said. “You thought that you and Shawn would have successful careers and then travel in your retirement, and that didn’t happen.”
He stood still for a moment. The sponge was still in his hand, and I watched as his eyes went to the ceiling in the way he did when he was pondering something. I could tell he was thinking back on his own life, unsure for just a minute about how to frame everything for me.
“When we were young, your mom and I used to see this old couple in the evening walking around our neighborhood. We’d watch them and say, ‘That’s us in 30 years.’”
He was looking past me, maybe remembering that moment. Then he looked right at me. “But things don’t work out the way you planned. So you just do the best you can.”
My eggs were getting cold, but I paused, thinking about how Shawn and I used to discuss getting old, sometimes dreaming about laying on a beach in a foreign country and other times imagining retreating to the mountains. But one thing stuck in my mind, much more than this fantasy travel. Shawn always said he wanted to build a big front porch on our house. “That way,” he said, “when we’re old we can get our morning coffee and watch all the kids walk to school every morning. We’ll be those old people all the kids know.”
In many ways, my father and I had imagined the same futures for ourselves, futures that were gone now, or at least drastically different from those images we could both still conjure up in our minds. I thought about the front porch—the one that we never built—as my dad and I silently continued with our morning routines. Maybe he was thinking about the old couple walking around his neighborhood.
Eventually my dad got up and set a fresh cup of coffee in front of me. “I could have helped you pay for someone to take care of the kids,” he finally said, snapping me out of my hazy memories. “But I thought, ‘Who do you want raising your grandkids?’”
Image Credit: Sharyn Peavey.