?It’s December 1971. I’m 19. I’m in my dorm room at the woman’s college, listening to the radio. Carly Simon. I’m sitting on my bed, line by line decoding The Odyssey. I believed that all educated people could read Greek, so there I was, working on my education. It didn’t occur to me as I translated five lines a day that I wasn’t really learning Greek. I didn’t know much about language learning at that point in my life. I didn’t know how important that would be to my livelihood forever.
There were many things on the horizon that December that I could not have known precisely, though I knew they were off in the not-to-far distance. Anticipation.
I was anticipating Christmas break. Thanksgiving had been the usual. Aunt Martha came by the dorm in her Oldsmobile, picked me up, and we drove to Colorado Springs. Mom had me set the table with the china and crystal. At 3 pm, as usual for Thanksgiving, the four of us — mom, my brother, my aunt and I — ate our dutiful capon. Mom didn’t like turkey. When it was over, we sat around and then my mom said, “Fix a plate and take it to your dad.”
Dad was in a nursing home. I did this. I hung out with my dad for a while, fed him Thanksgiving dinner while my mom and aunt cleaned up the kitchen — usually my job, but this was a special day. A little later they arrived and I went home.
I had a date, after all, and a boyfriend. A guy I would actually marry 7 months later.
So there I was, decoding Homer as the snow fell outside my window, cracked open a little so a pigeon I’d befriended could perch there for warmth.
Final exams for fall semester. Filling blue books and typing essays. Erasable typing paper didn’t help a lot, but some. Sometime in my own teaching career, grading papers that had been sloppily proofread, I pitied my professors. Final editorial pieces for the semester, Merry Christmas, end of semester, summing up of the year. Packing. Closing the window completely, somewhat ruefully but sure the pigeon would work something out. Packed. Aunt Martha, “Are you ready, Martha Ann?”
“I’m ready. Let’s go.” Put the suitcase in the trunk of the Oldsmobile and off we go, catching the I-25 somewhere, probably an entry ramp that doesn’t exist any more crossing a city that doesn’t exist any more.
“I’m going to go see dad,” I say, soon after I arrived.
Dad had been in a coma since a couple of days after Thanksgiving. I knew — we all knew — that something was going to happen; we anticipated the worst, we debated about what the “worst” actually was.
I got into the Ford Galaxie 500XL, turned the key, backed out of the garage. The winter light at that altitude is white and oblique, the sun so far south, beautiful. I knew so much less about it at that point in my life than I do now that part of me feels impatience with that girl. “Look around,” I want to say.
“I’m trying,” she’d say, and there’s no way to dispute that. It’s true. She was trying.
I had brought homework to do while my dad was just lying there in a coma. I settled into my usual chair, opened whatever book I’d be starting the semester with come January. I took my dad’s hand in mine and read.
After about an hour I felt him squeeze my hand. Thinking it was a reflex, a dream, I looked up. His eyes were open. He was looking at me, full on, as I had never been looked at before or since. For a long time we just looked at each other, unrelenting eye contact, “words” crossing the air between our minds, every needful thing “spoken” in that silent space.
“Do you want me to read to you, Dad?” I picked up Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland and turned it to “Jabberwocky” which he loved.
When I finished, and could see he’d enjoyed it, I knew I had to call my mom. I had to call the nurse. There was a short litany of “have to’s” in that moment and I accomplished them. Soon there was a bustle in that quiet room; the busyness of life. My mom appeared in her long winter coat and lipstick to see her husband. The nurse replaced the IV needle that had come out. I retreated to the corner of the room knowing that a moment in my life had just ended, but beautifully.
My dad was conscious through Christmas. We opened presents together at the nursing home on Christmas Eve. My dad gave me a pen and pencil set. He’d scrawled on the gift tag, “Keep writing, MAK.” A week after I returned to school, he was again in a coma. A month later he was dead.
I don’t anticipate any more. A lifetime of discipline has brought me to the point where I know that the future is its own business. This moment, eternally-loving, blue eyes.