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Slightly Retired

"It was many years ago, but I still remember the last visit with my father. He lived in New Hampshire in the old house, alone since my mother's death four years before. Not quite alone, he had a wonderfully caring, older live-in housekeeper--Mrs. Gray. No one in the family understood how Mrs. Gray could possibly tolerate the old man, but we were all exceedingly grateful that she somehow managed.I'd had a call from one of my brothers saying Dad had had a serious heart attack but was back home again. So I left my kids in L.A., hoping they were old enough to take care of themselves, and caught a flight east. It had been a few years since I'd seen him, and now I found this older father gentler, thinner, shorter than the one I'd grown up with. His eyesight was failing, but he enjoyed the large print books Mrs. Gray brought from the library. His hearing was still good and he spent many hours a day in his favorite chair either listening to the radio or watching TV.He'd nearly died. He referred to it as a dress rehearsal. His rehearsal for death had not made him more gracious. He vehemently refused to consider my suggestion that he talk with the pastor at the church he'd attended most of his adult life. I don't want anybody giving me all that Bible drivel about death, he shouted. He shouted about most everything--food, sleep, world events, life in general.I took him for several drives in the car. I offered to stop so he could visit with some of the people in town he'd known forever. He refused, shouting that it was too hard getting in and out of the car; they could come and see him. I asked him what was the real reason and he shouted, waving his arm back and forth, Just keep driving, and turned his head to look out the side window.It was then that it hit me, and I was ashamed I had not remembered before now. My father had always hated goodbyes, to the point he would do most anything to avoid them. The family was used to it and knew when the time came to say goodbye to visiting relatives or friends, or even us kids, my father was never present. My mother would explain with a faint, knowing smile, James was so sorry. He had to go on an emergency call for milk fever (or whatever), but said he'd try to be back in time to say goodbye.Familiar with his excuses, those leaving would laugh, crack a few jokes over his dependable absence, and say, Oh well, give him our love and say goodbye. The day I was getting ready to leave for college for the first time, I asked my mother if dad would be back before I left. She hugged me and said, No, I doubt if he will. You have to understand, he gets tearful over goodbyes for people he cares about and doesn't want them to see him cry. From then on, I could more easily say goodbye to my mother and think of my father as hiding out somewhere. He never changed.On this my last visit, I'd offered several times to take my father and Mrs. Gray out to dinner or lunch, but she was reluctant. Finally, my father said he'd like to go. I drove 30 miles to the Cupboard Inn for a special lunch and learned why Mrs. Gray had not wanted to go out to eat.He refused to recognize the pleadings of the hostess, but shuffled through the tables until he found the spot he wanted. He sat down quietly, obviously pleased with himself. We had cioppino because he shouted at the waitress for that soup with the pieces of fish in it. He appeared to enjoy searching for the delicacies in the bowl and occasionally looking around at the other patrons. I tried unsuccessfully to make conversation about all the times we'd eaten there in the past with family and friends. He wasn't interested in reminiscing.Toward the end of the meal, he pushed his chair back and, with some effort, stood up. I thought he had to go to the bathroom and I was panicked over what to do. Instead, he shuffled through the tables to one where two older, white haired ladies sat. I thought, Oh, my gosh, what's he doing? Bless the women, they smiled at him and one even giggled a bit as he leaned over the table speaking intimately to them. He then returned to our table. I swear he was holding himself straighter, and was showing his mischievous smile and twinkle of old. I asked, Old friends? Do I know them? He answered, No, I don't believe so. I don't know them. I simply wanted to tell them how lovely they both looked and that I couldn't keep my eyes off them the whole meal.On the way home, we stopped at the familiar ice cream shop for a chocolate chip cone. He liked that, and I got extra napkins to wipe up the drips. "

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