Portrait of a Father
Jeff knew a bird by its song.
He didn’t know how to attach a photo to an email, until the 23rd time I walked him through it.
He had a classic dad belly. We used to call him “Harry the hippo” as kids. Only now that I am following his form, do I realize how cruel and incurable that remark truly is.
Jeff knew the sights and smells of more towns in France than he did in America and could detail the refinements of many a pain au chocolate in each village.
He didn’t know how to string more than a few French words together, despite his biennial travels abroad and marital ties.
He had an endearing smile that projected the upper keys of his mouth while his eyes squinted with joy that trailed to the horizons. If at first you weren’t smiling because you were in a bad mood, eventually you were shaking your head and smiling because you couldn’t help it.
Jeff knew how to make a yummy christmas plum pudding, enhanced with bourbon and fresh Chestnuts from his yard.
He didn’t know how to properly dispose of trapped woodchucks because they kept finding their way back to his vegetable/flower garden in Westport.
He used a boar bristle hairbrush and aerosol to keep his thin layer of hair in place particularly when going to church. But the wind would unleash chaos on his head during a swift sailboat ride around the noon hour if he had forgotten his Greek sailor cap.
Jeff knew the end was near. He arranged a This is Your Life tour, meeting his former wife and friends from Wilbraham Academy he hadn’t seen since youth. He knew how to initiate small talk with strangers.
He didn’t know how to deal with bad news or talk about dark issues. He didn’t know how to connect with his daughters.
Jeff was born on a Wednesday, or Mercredi as the frogs call it.
Jeff knew his jokes were bad, but told them anyway and laughed even when nobody else did.
He didn’t know when his jokes were outdated. For instance, if you said “thank you” for something, anything, he’d say, “I’d do the same for a black man.”
Although when he first adopted that joke, he was probably surrounded by a bunch of Good Ol Boys and the punch line was — I’d do the same for a negro.
Dad had dry skinned arms and legs. His freckled arms were usually tanned but flaky as if he’d been raked through the desert for 19 days. It wasn’t like a Coppertone beach tan. He never applied sunscreen, at least willingly. He never lifted a barbell in my 47 years, so he didn’t have any muscle cuts or indication of powerful biceps, but like his brother said, he’s stronger than an ox. I first heard Claggett say that in the hospital room just days after dad had fallen from a stroke.
Jeff knew he wanted to help people. He served in the Army. He served in the Massachusetts legislature. He served in the public schools.
He didn’t know his friends would turn on him. If his helping backfired, it was because he was a dim judge of character, always expecting the best of everyone. Like the guy who sued George just a year after Jeff introduced the church associate to his son-in-law.
Jeff was 78. He hid his limp leg. His useless left arm. He rushed his inability to eat like a gentleman. This took a mighty toll on things he loved to do, such as boating, going for walks, and hell even eating.
Jeff knew and we knew his time was really dwindling when he screamed for ice cream. He had been eating yogurt and pills and milk. And little else for days. Then out of the blue. “Chocolate ice cream!” Like Jack Nicholson at a restaurant in that one movie yelling — Menus!
He didn’t know that it was okay to get medical assistance or that it was okay to do physical therapy or ask for help. That wasn’t his style.
I guess he was too proud.
Jeff knew I had a hard time settling on a career. When I got the newspaper gig, he said, I think you finally found your calling. Your mother would be proud of you. He sensed my loneliness perhaps, chasing a dream in rural Washington. But also my mother was a journalist for a period. Truth is, the business didn’t really click with me.
But for the time being, at the time when I really needed it, the words felt encouraging and comforting.
He didn’t know why. When we visited Cannes, he wanted to take my photo on the steps of the pavilion steps or whatever the hell it’s called where all the international film celebs parade their glitter every spring. He wanted me to write an award-winning screenplay. I didn’t have the confidence. I didn’t want to be reminded of that failure in a photo. Now I wish I let him take that shot, to at least keep the dream alive.
He had a sharp eye for photography.
Jeff knew I screwed up the Daily prayer as I recited it from rusty memory. But his eyes were shut and he laid there silently correcting me, letting me continue with whatever version I was fabricating. The next day I had an opportunity to make amends. This time I searched and held the verse at my fingertips. I apologized for the day before. “I think I messed that up.” His speech was limited to a few sentences a day at that point. But he confirmed with a vigorous nod and pursed lips that said — Ya, you did. I laughed. He really wanted me to be a Christian Scientist, but it didn’t stick.
He didn’t know how to create a cohesive family. He was always planning family gatherings, holidays or otherwise, that combined blood and step worlds. Beyond the proximity though, he was the only glue. He was competitive. Even as a teenager, he wouldn’t let me beat him in tennis.
Jeff knew he wasn’t the perfect father or the perfect healer or the perfect financial planner. That didn’t stop him from believing or trying.
He didn’t know what the doctors were saying half the time in January. This was his second hospital visit ever. On a scale of 1 to 10, what’s your level of pain? One or a two. I had to interject. “Dad! We wouldn’t be here if you were a one or a two. It’s not about how tough you are. It’s just a gauge so they can determine later if the pain is improving.” Maybe 3. “7!” I told the nurse.
He had been gritting his teeth at home just an hour earlier yelling we had to go to the hospital. All he wanted was pain relief. He didn’t want the medical mumbo jumbo that accompanies every hospital visit.
In order to get the meds right away, you have to see a physician first. In order to get the meds at home, you have to get hospice care.
He was generous and thoughtful and tried to be fair. He used to hide wads of cash in his shoe; then it was his sports coat. “If something should ever happen to me,” he’d say. I’m sure all his pockets were sifted before being sold on eBay.
He had a deficit of patience. The miscommunication with his wife could make his face beet red and voice escalate to wartime volumes. The triage nurse harped on him because he quit taking his blood pressure medication a couple years ago. What did you do that for?! “Please don’t make him feel bad for his decisions.
Not everybody agrees on the same methods okay?!” I barked back at her superiority complex. I didn’t agree with his decision either, but that was “water over the dam” as he liked to say.
I suspect one of his biggest regrets was rejecting an offer to pitch for the Boston Red Sox, farm league.
Jeff knew we were coming to visit. To say hello. Jeannie and I arrived New Year’s Day. He got out of bed midday for a brief conversation. He looked ghostly. “Let’s go the hospital,” I suggested. I’m beyond that, he replied. “Ya, but if you want pain relief, they can give you something. Give it some thought okay?” That was me being diplomatic. Inside I was screaming — for the love of god, let’s get some help mister. The next morning he was ready to go.
He didn’t know we would be staying with him for the next 19 days. “I’m not going anywhere,” I declared. We left Connecticut on a Monday. All of us kids left on a Monday. His departure was a week after ours. His mother’s Last Testament and Will had not yet been fully executed.
He loved god and man and nature.