Every family has its famous photos, as did ours, and all my life a black and white image – not a playful caricature but a postwar portrait from years earlier, 1954, to be exact – has floated in my head like a leaf or a petal or a ghost from a dream half-forgotten. A young man is boarding a Northwest Orient jet. He looks happy not jubilant. The hat, well, it’s a nice touch but his bon voyage is a bit lackluster, isn’t it? Maybe he’s tired, not quite his crisp self. Gray skies will do that; wear a man out and make him look like he’s at journey’s end before the plane’s even taken off. But, hm. What about his eyes? Where are the sparks? You’d expect sparks in the face of a dream coming true back when dreams were bigger and meant something. From here, six decades years later, I can’t see any but then I wasn’t there. Maybe they’re muted like stars on a cloudy night.
Besides, what can you really draw from a picture?
A quarter century later:
Even then, the night he called me, I wondered.
It’s true that no one could steal a leisurely moment on the gold brocade-covered couch in the living room like him. Smoke a cigar with slo-mo love or sip a Scotch on the rocks, exhausted to ashes. Living it up in the ‘burbs! TGIF, he loved to enunciate on Friday nights like a typical American dad, not that he was, not by a longshot. Come sit with me, Fran. His shoulders would soften like candle wax. I want you to do great things with your life. Become a teacher or a scientist – do you know how proud that would make me? Use your brain. Be wise. Don’t think about money. Read philosophy! There was a fellow, his name was Augustine, who left the material world behind and spent his life seeking light. Granted, Fran, not the light I would follow but that is not the point I’m trying to make: He knew who he was. If you waste your time listening to too much rock ‘n’ roll music, you will never know who you are. Understand, Fran?
No matter where he was, his modus operandi was work, in the office, in the garden, on a Northwest Orient flight over the South Pacific Ocean. This I heard through the family grapevine: During the blizzard of ‘79 when all of D.C. was paralyzed, he left our yellow green-shuttered house on a hill and in fine Dr. Zhivago form braved his way up our street and over Rolling Road to the Metro stop to wait for a bus that never came. I can picture him right now, a solitary figure in a snowy mess, his eyeglasses frosted, hope dimming on a day so many winters ago. Where is the bus? No bus meant a day hunched over his desk in the den, a garage-converted room so cold you could see your breath, where the red coils of a coal-black space heater struggled in vain and a TV blared from the rec room. Daytime television – what is this nonsense? – confound him to no end but kids were kids and he didn’t want to yell. Like so much in the world, in the end it would only break his heart … Where is the bus?? At some point the Ivy League-educated father of four gave up and trudged back home.
Focus…. click! My dad, in character.
But not the night he called me. Flying home the next day, I’d been visiting a boyfriend up north who’d taken me to Toronto where we partied day and night for a straight week. Poor dad. The daughter he thought was most like him, a bookworm at birth, the daughter he pictured in laboratories and libraries not nightclubs, the daughter he wrote deeply reflective letters to from four corners of the globe, had different ideas these days. I wasn’t a living nightmare but I wasn’t the Fran of his dreams anymore, either.
On the phone:
For the record, he was the only person on earth who could call me ‘Fran’ and get away with it. I liked the way he said it, like a well-heeled Brit not some Virginia hick. As a student, he’d taught himself English from a British dictionary, phonetics, expressions and all; now every word that sprang from his lips made everyone else sound like a jailbird.
“I will pick you up from the airport tomorrow.”
“My flight’s coming in at noon, Dad, in the middle of the day.” Workaholics don’t take off in the middle of the day, in the middle of meetings and report-writing and whatever else he did at the World Bank.
“I am taking off.”
“The whole day?”
Yah? The apartment I rented in Arlington was just a couple of miles from National Airport, as it was known back then. I could hop on the subway or take a taxi, no big deal. Plus, my dad had a long list of loose ends to tie up before leaving in a few days on a six-week World Bank mission to Korea, my mom in tow. He always did. True, airports were his second home. But take the whole day off? That’d be a first.
“You don’t have to do that, Dad, I’ll just grab a cab.”
He protested. “I will be there.”
“Fran! Over here!”
As far as I could tell from my visits overseas, Korean men of his generation on the streets of Seoul universally stood diminutively at five foot four with either very bony or very boxy builds depending on their luck after the war. Despite my observation which I took to be fact, my dad felt cheated out of a couple inches. Fran, my family slept in one room, on the floor, mother, father, brothers, sisters, all cramped together. You could barely move or breathe. If I just could have stretched my legs, I would be five feet five, maybe five feet six… Why didn’t you just go to another room, Dad? What other room, Fran? You think we lived in a palace? Our home was just one room! His theory aside, as a child I remember wishing he was as tall as the other dads, or at least not the shortest dad wherever we went, to High’s Dairy or Sears or the carnival. But unlike a house that wasn’t really perched on a hill just slightly higher ground, a mound, really, a home we coded as more elevated and therefore more majestic than our neighbors’, in time I would come to see that my father really did stand tall. Stood out. His hair, still black as magic marker, was combed back to expose a sunny if not scholarly glow. His shirt, a splashy number from the Philippines, pale yellow linen with embroidered white flowers was a good look on a thinker with a boxy build. But the truth was, it was just him. In a sea of people, he towered.
“I see you, Dad!”
I see you, Dad, you were there that day…
After our traditional airport greeting – a quick peck on the lips – he took my bags and led me out of the airport.
“Wait here, Fran, while I get the car.”
“I’ll go with you.”
“No, you are tired.”
From a one-hour flight? I can barely walk in high heels today but in 1979, two years out of college, I could run in them. Besides, the airport was hardly the monstrosity it is today; the satellite parking lot right there, in view. Still:
“You rest,” he said, seemingly hell-bent on me not lifting a finger.
And he was off.
There he is, rushing through the parking lot, growing smaller and smaller, leaving me behind. In my archives he’s always in and out of airports, a restless traveler coming and going, looking for The Dream, a place to find peace of mind, an elusive thumbtack on the map between poverty and paradise, a place deep he was never going to find.
In the dark green Torino, my dad’s Old Spice filled the car. Old Spice, nice. If occurs to me as I write this that Duncan Hines Spice Cake was my dad’s favorite which explains why the aroma of Old Spice aftershave or spice cake in the oven meant he was around or coming around – it wasn’t something we took for granted. At the wheel:
“I had my annual physical yesterday.”
From his history, my heart pinched. “Yeah?”
Despite a brisk walk, and youthful for fifty-six, my father was far from the picture of health. There were scares, not many but enough. One long ago night that felt like midnight, I looked up at a hospital window from my bus seat and caught his silhouette, a haunting sight in the window of a room so high up I felt hollow as an orphan as the bus pulled away; I waved and he waved back, he saw me, yes, I’m sure he saw me. Just yesterday I asked my mom about this memory; she told me we were leaving Washington Hospital Center and the year was 1960. That made me five years old, too young to be allowed into his room to visit. And however black the sky, it wasn’t really midnight but the early dusk of winter, same thing to a child. My mom didn’t drive in those days so we’d caught a series of busses to get there. Hollow. Carved-out heart hollow.
“The World Bank,” he said, “has a new staff physician.”
I glanced over, studied his profile. Was it darker? “OK…
“He told me I was in ‘tip top’ shape.”
“That’s good, right?”
“The new doctor changed my medications.”
“That’s weird, Dad. Why would he change your pills when they’re keeping you in ‘tip top’ shape?”
“He says these are more effective.”
“Do you trust this new doctor?”
His pause would prove historic and if I could go back to that pause in the car with him I would, even if it meant I had to relive all the years that have passed, even the shittiest ones. Finally he said:
“He seemed like a good doctor.”
A week later in the mail, I received a letter from him penned on Hyatt Regency Waikiki stationary saying he would write again from Seoul. In it, he expressed an unsettled heart. That same day while it rained in a Virginia cemetery, we buried him.