There is a way to make a week's vacation seem like a lifetime. Spend it traveling to see family, include the most sentimental of all holidays, and arrive back at home, safe and sound, with two full weekend days left over.
The week that was is behind us, but tucked within the baggage that filled every spare nook and cranny of the vehicle packed for the return trip are great lengths of memories, bittersweet and true, heartwarming and laden with whatever significance I choose to bestow upon them. Moments that seemed immaterial resurface with importance once taken out of their temporary storage and folded into the confines of my mind. Moments that seemed fleeting at the time, in fact rest in the recesses, reappearing to tickle and taunt my senses when I least expect it.
Every year for the past twenty-five or so, my dad's Board of Directors has held a meeting with him the week before Christmas. This session is typically when Dad would be reviewed, his body of work over the prior twelve months examined and praised, and his compensation package adjusted accordingly. This year, the session was dedicated to asking him to decide on a retirement date.
It could not have been unexpected. Ever since the first of his two-part aorta replacement surgeries, he's been pretty much a part-time presence in the office, at best. His hand-selected replacement had already been fully groomed and promoted to Dad's former position, while my father settled into the comfortable role of Director Emeritus, available to offer guidance and research. I am convinced that the only reason Dad maintained a role of any kind was based in fear of losing insurance coverage. Those familiar with his history might understand why this would be a major concern, given that he is a living monument to the miracles of modern medicine.
His stepping down completely was an inevitable occurrence, although I know, I could feel as he told me the news, that he wished it had been his decision and not one arrived at via a mutual meeting of many minds.
Retirement for a man like my father, or a man like my father used to be before his body betrayed him completely and turned him into a frail impression of himself, must be the most difficult phase of life to enter into, an unholy alliance between usefulness and abject emptiness. The news was difficult for him to take, and difficult for him to share, but he faced all of it with the most pride he could muster, and chose June 30th as closing day. In turn, his Board offered him a gift of gratitude for his life's work, agreeing to cover his insurance costs for a full eighteen months post-retirement.
Ironically, June 30th is my parent's anniversary. My dad selected the date so that he could celebrate his exit from the work-a-day world in conjunction with celebrating his continued partnership with the one who holds his heart, and holds his hand, and holds the one constant place of sure security in all his worlds - past, present and future. My heart melted a little as he struggled to define his reasoning without choking up, and to hear him explain it reminded me yet again where the sentimental strands of my DNA were born.
I've said it before, and I'll say it a million times over: my mother is the single most amazing person I know. She has her flaws, and I pick on her relentlessly for each and every one of them, but when I step back and take the time to appreciate this woman in all her selfless glory, it awes me into submission.
I don't know how she does it.
But she does. Her will and her attitude and her outlook on life in general in the face of even the most daunting of realities should be a lesson to everyone who meets her. She is a force to be reckoned with, and it's because she refuses to consider there might be other ways she could respond. In her mind, in her every waking moment, there is only one way: you do what must be done and you put the best face on it possible, because there is no such thing as defeat. To her way of thinking, everything happens for a reason, and therefore it is our job, our duty, to approach every challenge, every hardship, every joy and every blessing with clear eyes, full hearts and smiles in our souls.
She takes yoga and an exercise class three days a week. She teaches Sunday School. She cooks three meals a day from scratch, culling the week's menus from her vast collection of cookbooks. She visits shut-in neighbors, organizes neighborhood get togethers, works two crossword puzzles every single day, and needle points, working now on kneeling pads for her church's sanctuary.
And on top of all of this, she is my father's keeper, a care giver extraordinaire, without complaint, wholly under appreciated.
She is an inspiration.
I hope one day the strands of DNA that mark her innate talents will show themselves in my own, although I'm slowly coming to understand that these characteristics are largely the product of a great deal of work and consistent effort on her part. Perhaps one day, her persistence and faith will be my greatest inheritance.
Dad has a daily routine, and it does not change just because we are there. He wakes up in the morning and makes his way to the dining room table. Mom brings him breakfast, which he eats while taking a dozen or so prescribed medications, reading both morning papers from front page to back. This takes an hour or so, and then he makes his way downstairs (a sight that makes my heart stop, given his frailty), where he sits at the desk, surfing "his" pages of the internet: Golf Digest, the Charleston, WV daily newspapers, the Virginia Tech athletics site. Finally, he makes his way to the downstairs walk-in shower before slowly, shakily climbing back up the eleven or so steps to the kitchen.
By this time, he is exhausted. He goes to the bedroom to lie down for thirty minutes, or maybe an hour, depending on how late we've kept him up the night before.
And that is his morning.
The afternoon is spent in his chair in front of the TV, where he controls the remote like a benevolent ruler of all things tele-visible. He won't watch the news anymore. They shuffle between sporting events, the Food Network, and country music video channels, mostly. Early evening, he makes his way to the living room, to sit in front of the fire with a glass of wine. This is when he listens to his country music favorites on the portable headset Mom bought him for her own sanity, or enjoys some conversation with the rest of us, or just sits, looking through old photo albums or the odds and ends he's chosen to store in an ancient black leather briefcase, scraps of memories like an old stat sheet from my brother's basketball season, senior year, and newspaper clippings of long ago glory days.
At six every night, he is back in the family room, tuned into the Barefoot Contessa, and hunkered down for an evening of golf highlights, or bowl games, or the occasional old movie playing on some obscure cable station.
He's usually in bed by eight-thirty or nine every evening, and this is the one habit he discards while we're there. We all stayed up late, the room humming with the youthful energy of his grandkids, the laughter of his family, or the whatever members thereof comprising the evening's attentive audience, taking in his old, familiar stories, now perfected, long part of family lore.
All the while, Mom is buzzing back and forth, here and there.
One evening, I catch her mid-stride and hug her, long and hard.
We break apart and she looks at me, pushing my hair back from my face in a gesture practiced for some forty years now.
"Your father told me this was going to be his last Christmas," she says, looking me square in the eye, voice strong and steady while I sense my own knees preparing to buckle at the words.
I don't know what to say, and I don't think I could have said anything, even if the words had come to me.
"I just want to slap him naked," she finishes, turning toward the kitchen, where surely some work is waiting to be done, and if not, some task will be conjured.
And I understand so much in that moment.
Idle hands mean idle minds, and I give a small prayer of heartfelt gratitude for my mother's busy life of constant motion.