Sunday, July 19, 2009

Echoes of 28 at 82

by Zinta Aistars

He’s stopped fighting it. My father eases, ever so slowly, into the wheelchair we hold for him, sighs, and readies for the ride. I’ve brought him and Mom to Grand Rapids, Michigan for the day, an hour’s ride north of their home. We are marking his 82nd birthday, which was actually on Wednesday, but I can devote the full day to him on Saturday. I’ve been looking forward to it all week.

He keeps grinning at me and reminding me that I have transposed the numbers; should be 28. I’m not sure if he really means it, if he would really rather be that, but I know he wishes his body was younger, abler. I wish him happy 28th birthday. Mom curls her fingers around the wheelchair handles and pushes. Her walking has become slower, too, six months past her own 28th birthday, and she insists holding on like this makes walking easier for her, too.

The Grand Rapids Art Museum—GRAM—provides such chairs, and we are glad for it. The first time we suggested using a wheelchair to my father, at a botanic garden in Chicago with long, winding paths he could never have otherwise maneuvered with his stooped back (five back surgeries), he accepted only after argument, then held back tears for the rest of the day. My sister watched the flooding of his eyes and held back her own. We did not suggest using a chair again for some time, but watched him wince in pain, rest on benches and chairs and ledges every few steps, wherever we went. Until he gave in.

He’s willing now. He can take comfort in knowing it makes Mom’s walking easier, too. Bad hip. Those too many 28th birthdays.

I walk ahead, then circle around. He hasn’t been to the new GRAM yet, and art is his life, the flow of his blood, the beat of his heart. A shine comes up in his blue-grey eyes, and it’s not tears this time. Mom wheels him to each painting, each drawing, each sculpture, and I read the signs to them. Names of artists, short bios, a few lines of the artwork’s history. He nods. He knows most all of them already. He mouths the names of the artists before I have a chance to read. He fills in the missing stories. This is why I have always loved going to art museums with my father. He is my personal tour guide, man in the know.

By now, Mom knows, too. She points out his favorites, pushes the chair closer. She points to details, masterful strokes she knows he will appreciate. She huffs in disgust at the abstract art, making a face.

“I could do this,” she says of great white canvas with a red rhomboid to one side. Which is meant, of course, as a mark of disdain.

Dad shrugs. He’s no fan, either. He sighs with pleasure when we wheel up to the Renoir, Whistler, Sargent.

They echo each other. The mark of decades of twining opinions, formed along the same path. Synchronicity. I fall back to watch them. Watch them more than observe the art. They are moving art themselves, this couple of 59 years, the elderly woman with gimpy hip pushing the wheelchair of the elderly man. She leans over so that her head is closer to his when they are in front of a Manet. Her hand swirls to follow an arc of his pencil drawing, sweeps over it, and he nods in agreement. They’ve come to see the world through similar eyes.

At lunch in the GRAM café, she pecks at the food on his plate, tasting, smacking her lips in approval. He accepts a proffered bite of her chicken salad with cherries croissant. She dabs a napkin at the corner of his mouth. He laughs at her. I offer one a wedge of sage derby cheese from my plate, and they pass it back and forth, nibbling at its edges, deciding they both like it.

At the next museum, the Gerald Ford Museum on the Grand River, once again he accepts a complimentary wheelchair, and she seems equally grateful to lean on the handles, pushing him. Her purse is in his lap, and he can tell when she is going to want her digital camera and digs it out of the purse, holds it up to her. She knows not to take any photos of him in this chair.

In the rooms of archived presidential history, they remark to each other of the too quick passing of years. The Vietnam War brings up discussions of the war that brought the two of them together: World War II. Waves of Latvian refugees streaming out of the tiny Baltic country, running from the Soviet army, the executions, the raping, the torture one spoke of only in whispers. They met as two young refugees in Chicago, sponsored, as chance had it, by the same church. They sang in the church choir. He sang bass, she was second alto. He was engaged, so was she, and not to each other. There were going to be broken hearts, even while theirs would harmonize.

Growing up, I remember my parents flirting. Dad would come home from work—he was a commercial artist who painted every night, every single night, in his makeshift studio in the basement—and Mom would be making dinner in the kitchen when he came in from the garage. If she didn’t turn to greet him, I could see the greeting in her back, her shoulders straightening already, her head already to one side, as he would come up behind her, dicing her vegetables, slicing the tomatoes, chopping the scallions. He would pat her behind, press a kiss to the bend in her neck. She would pretend to be surprised. I’d be sitting at the table, my feet dangling off the chair, and learn to take love for granted. Like this, I thought, in every home.

Older, I would wish she’d stop telling him what to do. Wear that tie, no, the blue shirt, not the gray, and would you please hurry up? Calling down into the basement where he was lost in watercolors and canvas, the faint tangy smell of turpentine. She was the man of the household, paying the bills, running the system, while he painted, and painted, and painted, crossing off with red X’s the days on his calendar to retirement, when he could give his entire day to his art. Have you forgotten the lawn? She would admonish him. Tomorrow is trash day. The door jamb squeaks. The garage needs cleaning. And when his back began to stoop, she’d nag, Stand up straighter! Must you walk like an old man?

My sister married early, and near 40 years later, is married still, and with her whole heart in it. Out of five marriage proposals, I accepted two. My heart is long free. Now, I plan a peaceful life ahead of answering to no one, ever again. No one fill finish my sentences, nor I finish any man’s thought he can’t carry out on his own. My parents grieved at my chosen solitude, then accepted it. My contentment was showing. My respect for them grows as I see them learn to accept what they themselves do not know, do not fully understand.

There’s that moment Mom can’t resist. Sitting at Charley Crab’s for dinner, our table by the window overlooking the flow of the Grand River, she leans across the table toward me, her hand patting mine. “You could have any good man you wanted, you know,” she says, her eyebrows perching into momentary hopefulness.

I grin at her.

“I know, I know,” she waves away my unspoken retort. “You no longer want any of them.”

“I’ve known great loves, Mama. Not all are meant to last like yours has.”

She smiles, then, but not at me. I watch her lean into him. I watch him smile back at her. He kisses the tip of her nose, like any 28-year-old would, and she giggles, just like a girl.

We raise our wine glasses to his birthday. Many happy returns. May this moment repeat itself, over and over again, a pat on her behind, a kiss on the bend of her neck, the light come up in his eyes every time he sees her. Even when she tells him to stand up straighter.

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