My earliest painful memory was an episode of panic, loss and naked fear. I dropped my fatherís hand purposely and let him walk off down the street without me. It was the thing that all small children do. They test themselves and their resolve to see if they can separate from their parent and if the parent will let them. I remember making the decision to stand back and let him walk away from me. My father didnít get half a block before I ran after him and grabbed back his hand. It truly is the child who is well-loved and feels cherished who has the hardest time separating.
My father was tall. I thought he was the tallest man in the entire world. He was the tallest man I saw for a very long time. Iíve always thought he was like a tree. He had all the arboreal attributes; the height, the warm bark color, the gentle ruggedness that oaks and others have, the protective aspect, the rootedness, the steady, solid, immovable, ethical, handsomeness and constancy of trees.
James Sheridan Clarke, my father, died on January 18, 2009. He was ninety-six years old. He basically wore out. In cleaning out his things I discovered so many, many pairs of socks. There were dozens of them in balls in the basement -- mated, matched and twisted together in clean, orderly balls. These were the many obligatory Xmas, birthday and Fatherís day presents my sisters and I had given him over the years. He never asked for any particular present and we always truly wanted to get something for him. Sometimes it was a real chore trying to think of something fresh. We mostly fell back on socks.
My son died in 1989. I recall thinking when he was a small baby that he would be there when my beloved father died. We would mourn him together and go on in his line honoring him. Things happened differently. It turns out my father helped me through the crisis of my sonís death, a grandson that he idolized. How did we make it past that crushing sorrow?
When you nurse a dying parent you discover so many things. Lifting, turning, carrying a grown person who is ill is the hardest thing imaginable. You figure that because he has now become thinner and frailer that he will be easy to move. But my father seemed as heavy as lead. You fantasize that your big, strapping son will lift this man up over his head and put him down in bed gently and smooth the sheets beneath him. Truth is thatís a great big fantasy picture. The way to move a bedridden person is by making a draw sheet and roll and pull and have transfer chairs and benches and portable toilets and bedpans and plastic pads and large disposable diapers and a washer and dryer in the basement, And then beg and cajole and laugh and tease to get their flaccid, weak abdominal muscles to help out your aching back.
It is easy to turn to ancestor worship when your parents have died. No joy is joy enough without them. You invoke them often and it is to them that you appeal for the bus, the lost keys and to look after the house, the car, the friends and you.
The last time I saw my father at the residence facility where he spent his last days he waved my sister and me off. We had gotten up to go and we kept saying more and coming back to the bed touching his head, his face, his hand. He lay there - knowing we were to drive to New Jersey -- and he waved his hand to say, ďGo, on. Go, on now.Ē He was pushing us away from him in that loving way that we send the well-loved child to kindergarten. ďGo, on and on and on,Ē he seemed to say with the graceful gesture of his hand.