Two weeks ago I saw my father, which in and of itself isn’t odd, except for the fact that he’s been dead six years. When I saw him, sitting in the garage of my step-mother and her new husband on the occasion of her 60th birthday, I thought, “Oh. Good. Dad is here. I haven’t seen him for awhile.” On closer inspection, the balding head, supporting the reading glasses, the golf clothes—including the shirt with “Firestone” emblazoned on it, which is where my father worked when I was a small child—these elements did not add up to Dad. Instead, the details belonged to a minor player in my step-mother’s new family, and as it turns out, I was the only person who thought he momentarily resembled Dad. In fact, I seem to be the only person who recognized the man was even there. No one spoke to him. He sat, sipping a drink, and looking benignly at the May sky. He was a breathing ghost.
Because I’m a little bit of hypochondriac, who feels pains and finds lumps on a weekly basis, I feared Dad’s presence was some indication that I was going to be visiting him sooner rather than later on that great golf course in the sky. Then Z came for a long weekend of bliss, which miraculously caused the aches and swelling nodules to disappear. He’s magic, my African. The Great and Powerful oZ.
When I see the unbelievable, or even just the remarkable, I need to assign meaning, though sometimes I get it wrong. Six years ago, on the way to the hospital for the lung resection that was meant to give my father more time, I saw a turtle in the middle of the road. A road where there have never been turtles before. I took it as a positive sign—his recovery would be slow-going, but he would make it and we could bond in ways we had never previously managed.
Three hours later he was dead.
What to do with that turtle? I didn’t know, but other turtles kept popping up in unexpected places as I grieved, as I traveled alone through Ireland, when I met and said goodbye forever to Z (even though I didn’t believe it was really that kind of a goodbye). Here a turtle, there a turtle. I had to reassign meaning, and what the turtle began to mean when I would see one is this: You are exactly in the place you are supposed to be; quit borrowing future pain. You are at home in the world.
This weekend the Scottie dog and I hosted a Memorial Day party for my paternal side of the family. Cousins have come in from the Great Lakes, from Kentucky, from Ohio. We’ve spent time feeding our stomachs and our inclination to connect. None of us grew up together nor do we have many shared childhood memories. We were all raised very differently in different towns, but in our young adulthoods when the first round of weddings and funerals brought us together, we discovered similar interests and deep affection for each other.
The cousins all come together happily and fall into and out of conversations and group photos and long-standing jokes like a litter of middle-aged puppies, but the dwindling older generation cannot do the same. The stress of having everyone together makes them behave irrationally and sometimes badly, fretting about the exact time of dinner and what “out law” is in attendance, and which of the 40something children has misbehaved, looks unhappy, or has generally disappointed. We, their offspring, get questioned as if by Interpol, and we know no matter how carefully we answer that the information given will be used later, or sooner, to add kindling to some grievance that will be publicly aired or disseminated through the grapevine.
Maybe it’s a generational thing. Maybe it’s too emotional for my father’s generation to see the family as the upper tiers peel away and fly up to heaven, making way for new babies and new sets of out laws, and so other little mini-dramas must be constructed. Maybe it was some injustice done to them during their post-war childhoods. I try not to judge too harshly. After all, I don’t know what it is like to lose a husband, through a heart that has gone bad physically or emotionally, thru treachery or inertia. I don’t know what it is like to get the diagnosis that your own heart has about twelve thousand ticks left in it and this is probably your last family party. So the Scottie dog and I leave them to their outbursts and hope the grandkids tumbling into the creek or putting on a play or the happiness of their own children in concert with their cousins will soothe those demons.
Before the party started, I got a disgruntled phone call from an aunt. Something was upsetting to her, and because this party was for her and her faulty heart, I was upset because I wasn’t delivering the perfect party, conceivably her last. At that moment, I was ready to call the whole thing off. Who needed the strife? Have your own party if the potato salad here is not to your liking and so on and so forth.
My mood did not improve when I drove out of the driveway, right past a snake. I hate snakes. HATE. I, who believe serial killers and child molesters should not get the death penalty, want all snakes to die horrible, painful deaths. No amount of debate can convince me they aren’t bent on evil or that the planet would not be in better shape without their presence.
I drove past that snake and was filled with rage. How dare this snake sun himself (reptiles are always male in my book) on MY borrowed driveway, as he plotted some sort of trespass against me? (How dare my aunt be annoyed at me when I was offering up my borrowed house for HER party.) I looked him in the snakey eye and I said out loud, “You, you little bastard, will die if I get back and you are still here.” I went on to the grocery and shopped angrily and was probably rude to the check-out girl whose red, white, and blue fingernails disturbed me. I was still angry as I drove back up the driveway, and I was determined to deal justice to that snake with my Goodyear tires.
He was not there. He’d slithered off to make some other person’s blood run cold. What was in his place? Yeah, that’s right, a turtle. Just sitting there and, I SWEAR, sniffing flowers. Not only that, but he paused and looked at me with his wizened face—combination dinosaur and Dali Lama—and I think he said, “Chill out. It’s all good.”
And it was.