I wrote this piece in November 1993 — more than 18 years ago.
My father called last night. He’s finally changing his will and he’s made me executrix. The term surprises me, and before I can stop myself, I flash on Electrolux vacuum cleaners, then high-priced call girls performing exec-u-tricks for CEOs. I don’t think about what it really involves until after we hang up, and then I can’t stop thinking about it.
Dad and his girlfriend, Nancy, are renting a house on the Carolina coast for three months, then they’ll decide what to do next: either house-sit in a Michigan lighthouse, or build their own log cabin in the western Virginia hills, with the idea of living in it half the year and travelling during the rest. Either way, he’s still looking for a home, temporary or less temporary. He’s spent the last 10 years hiking, living in the woods, living in other people’s houses while they’re away – usually without a telephone, so my sisters and I never know when we might talk with him again. We make up for it by talking about him, comparing the evidence of our lives and finding him both mutable and constant.
Lately, Dad talks a lot about money. He never used to mention it, not specific dollar amounts. Until I was 25, I had no idea what his salary was or what the house cost. If I asked, he’d say “Oh, we have enough. You don’t need to worry.” Now, he brings up the subject while we’re talking about breakfast or the Orioles. He tells me what his 401k will mean for my sisters and me when we split it three ways. He tells me how much money he settled on my mother in their divorce last year, and how much she’ll receive from a life insurance policy. I write it all down for later.
I remember when I first realized my father wasn’t all-powerful. I was 7 and my mother, who never listened to me, was vacuuming around me one evening while I talked. I packed a few stuffed animals and fewer clothes, and I told her I was leaving. “Goodbye!” she waved, stepping over the cord into the living room. I slammed the door, walked through the dark to the back yard, and stood under the redwood deck Dad had made the summer before, wondering where to go now. The mint grew thick in the shade, the aroma so strong I’m overpowered even now when I pull it out of my own garden. I heard the front door open and close, and then my name yelled into the night. I heard him coming towards me and as soon as he got close, I took off. It felt like a game, then. We ran three times around the house but I was more agile around the corners and stayed well ahead of him. He couldn’t catch me. I felt powerful, strong, safe in my youthful body. It was only later, in bed with my animals, that I felt a cold sliver of fear near my heart.
I feel the same chill now, sometimes. When Dad and Nancy visited this summer, we played 4-card stud, 7-card draw, hearts, and any other card games we could remember most of the rules for. Suddenly, Dad got a charley-horse and fell writhing to the ground. I ran to get the analgesic cream. After Nancy and I rubbed it into his calf, he was able to stand up again, but he seemed a little shorter, a little stooped. I don’t think I had ever witnessed his pain before, so direct, so unmitigated.
When we talk about his will, or the house they may build, I know that hiding just beyond the circumference of this conversation is another conversation, one much more difficult to navigate.
I had a nightmare the other night that my father killed himself. In the dream, he had made a promise to me that he would live out the length of his days. Everyone in my family dies young; few have lived past 65; and he knows I’m anxious that someone break into old age, just to show me it can be done. But, in the dream, he kills himself and the promise is broken. In life, he’s made no such promise, and even if he had, I couldn’t hold him to it, no matter how strong I am or how weak he becomes.
Eventually, he’ll find his home and he’ll want to stay there.