Thursday, February 16, 2017
Today's muse: Three Word Wednesday
Today's words: Decaying, Ember, Fragrant
My father-in-law is one the sweetest men I know. He and my father are cut from the same cloth. It is heartbreaking to watch a vibrant man submit to dementia.
* * *
He is fluent in three languages: French, Arabic, English. His time with the military exposed him to many nationalities and he can spew a key sentence from a dozen other countries. Phrases like finito la musica, passato la fiesta and haben Sie eine Schreibmaschine.
Granted, these are not expressions that will save his or your life, but if you’re with him in Italy, Richard can cheer last call and he can get you a typewriter in Germany.
He is an engineer—was an engineer before AutoCAD, when everything was drawn and written by hand. That precise writing that you see at the bottom of schematic drawings? Back in his day, that was meticulously written by hand, not by computer.
And that’s how Richard writes. Neat. Precise. Exact.
And that describes Richard. Neat. Precise. Exact.
It is how he conducts and presents himself. Pressed pants. Pressed shirt. Polished shoes.
Richard embraced the long-forgotten skill of conversation. My father also has this skill. It is a talent lost on the last few generations. It is easy to forget how to converse when you communicate with your thumbs, punch in abbreviated words without making eye contact.
Richard came come home from the auto shop one day—he’d had the oil changed or his tires rotated—and he told us about the young mechanic that serviced his car. He knew the man’s name, his wife’s name, the names of his three children and their ages—the youngest was having a birthday party next week—and he knew the man’s parents were from Poland, that they had emigrated in 1963.
Richard should have had a talk show. He would have had better ratings than Carson and Oprah combined.
I met Richard twenty-four years ago. He wasn’t home when we arrived at his house—he was out on his bicycle, riding home from a woodshop class he was taking. He was 70 years old.
When he vacationed with his wife—a woman who speaks English and French fluently; a teacher by trade—they took road trips into the States, attended Elder Hostels where the focus was learning. They took up bird-watching, studied the Civil War and learned how to play the kazoo.
He would entertain us with funny and heartbreaking stories about his life in Egypt, his hardships as a new Canadian. He told the romantic (and amusing) tale of how he met his wife at a church picnic, how she charmed him—a man from a foreign country with a thick accent and a meager sandwich wrapped in newspaper.
His eyes were mischievous, his smile quick and genuine. He flirted with every woman he met, told me each time I saw him that I was beautiful.
Now, at ninety-four, Richard’s gaze is tired and vacant. He no longer recognizes me, though he understands that I am a friendly person. Of course, he still tells me I’m pretty. He is, after all, an incorrigible flirt.
He holds out a trembling hand when I visit, reverts back to his native Parisian French when he greets me. Quelle belle fille, he says. He grins at me (ever the flirt), his smile now lopsided after a mild stroke.
“How are you, Richard?”
“I am well,” he replies, his English precise and formal. I know he lies. He is not well.
His brilliant mind is decaying at an alarming rate. Conversation—once fragrant with sweet endearments—is now riddled with anger, punctuated with profanity. This is not the Richard I know. This is not the Richard I love.
I watched him spiral into the void, unable to extinguish the fire that burned away the man I once knew. All that is left is a dying ember that cannot spark.
But once in a while it glows, and his eyes focus on me. I know in that moment he recognizes me. He smiles—the kind of smile that reaches his eyes and lifts my heart—and he sees me. Knows me.
I hold onto those moments.