On one of two very recent trips to visit Dad, an Honor Flight was arriving as I did. How wonderful to see the crowds of people who stood up and clapped as these brave Veterans were wheeled past, and the line of officers that shook their hands and thanked them for their service. I had brought a tiny little point and shoot out on this trip and got one discreet picture, even as a tear ran down my cheek.
Good people honor their Veterans as we are taught to honor our parents. That is why my vacations the last 20 years have been back and forth to Dad's house to care for him and my step-mom when she had Alzheimer's, My big brother, who lived two hours away, made sure the house stayed in good condition, with both of us making sure there was enough money in his account to handle it's upkeep (you can't see it from this angle but Bro and I got him one of those recliners that lifts him up to a standing position). I handled cooking and cleaning, canning and freezing, so meals when I was gone were easy. Clothes were mended and gutters were cleaned
My family is from Montana. but they moved West, but for a small home back there that ended up a rental and an occasional vacation stop. Dad's house is the one I grew up in, my room virtually unchanged from childhood. When I came home this last time, he did something that Big Bro always did for me, leave a couple of balloons tied to one of my stuffed animals (yes, they are still in my room) on the bed.
My bedroom looks just the same as when I was a teen, with the rainbows painted when I was 14 our out of the horrid colored 70's leftover paint (I do NOT want to remember which room the aqua one was, but I remember the awful salmon color as my childhood bedroom paint scheme). The rest of the house has been repainted, a kitchen fire a couple of years ago when someone Dad hired to help with the cleaning and cooking (instead of the licensed and bonded one I had hired because "this one is cheaper", even though I was the one paying for it) set fire to the place while out smoking and talking on the phone while something was cooking on high near flammables.
Though, other than the fresh paint on most of the walls, it looks just the same. Around the house, are always things that make me smile. Big Bro's frog. The photo frames he made as he was dying and put up all over the house, reminding himself each day of the life he had lived, and how lucky he was.
In our house we had what was known as the Girl's Bathroom and the Boy's bathroom, which of course, now would be politically incorrect. The "Girl's bathroom" was where Mom and I could take our time with hair and curlers and what not and the boy's bathroom was just a half bath that was painted blue and decorated with a little ceramic skunk Mom made named Stinky. The tub and the shower though were in the "Girl's bathroom"
Everything in there was pink, walls, towels, shower curtain, etc. On the wall were these ceramic tropical fish Mom made (she was really into crafts) that were a Daddy and Mommy tropical fish, with two little baby fish. They were stuck to the wall with adhesive stuff, Mom and baby fish following the Daddy fish with little ceramic bubbles that would perch above them as if rising to the surface. I was the smallest fish, there at the end of the little line of swimming fish. Big Bro used to take the bubbles from our two fish and position them so they'd be coming out of the little sister fish's butt.
Big Brothers are like that.
Being in that house, 50 years later, brings back so many memories. The houses on this block were all were erected in the 50's, sprawling across what used to be farm fields, rich soil that lay at the foothills of the mountains, small squares of cedar and brick, laying in the shadows of tall unaxed trees and the log train that serenaded a little girl to sleep.
The town's only grocery was across a two lane 50 mph roadway that lead to the mountains. We were NOT allowed across it on our bikes without a parent, even if there was four way traffic light at the intersection with the grocery and the gas station. There was no even THINKING of breaking that rule. We knew the consequences of being reckless, and it was not a slap on the wrist or a taxpayer funded 'stimulus'. Outside of that, there were all kinds of places to roam, and in summer time we were pretty much outdoors from breakfast to supper, no helmets, no sunscreen if we could help it, no hand sanitizer, no shin guards.
But, like the examples of our parents, and the lessons of TV, which did not yet involve drugs and spandex, we were careful with our weapons, even if they were plastic. Besides, should those rules be broken, we knew who the Sheriff in town was, and it was Mom, even if she gave up her actual Deputy Sheriff badge and an 18 year career in Law Enforcement, when they adopted both of us.
On Saturdays, the cars came out to be washed, and sometimes waxed. I could earn spending money for candy by washing the station wagon for Dad, and gladly did so, learning early the correlation between labor and putting food on the table. Our Dads would mow, and our Moms would get groceries and bake cookies for the week.
Now when I go back, so much of the area has changed I see houses down the street where there's no money to repair a roof, moss taking over, plants growing in the gutter, but there's a new fishing boat and Hummer in the driveway of the very modest home. On others, there are bars on the front doors of the homes we'd run up to to ring the doorbell on Halloween, without any adult in trail.
But Dad's house - it's virtually unchanged from my childhood, but for the apple tree that had to be cut down
But one thing that did need a change, and he'd tried to do it, but just made a mess with some paint. The ever so pink bathroom. It's the one Dad uses most of the time, as it has the tub that we added bars and a chair too. It's also larger and easier to navigate in. But it was still pink. So while he was in away, it was updated to be a little less "girly"
Nothing fancy, a light greyish-blue paint, a new shower curtain, and grey towels to match the tile. The fish, long since living at my house, were replaced by an old, old photo of of our childhood vacation stomping ground, and Dad's favorite memories.
Everything else but for the bathroom was left alone. Dad asked that everything else, including my brothers things, be left exactly where they are, until he too, is gone. Though, that empty spot where Bro's recliner in the family room had been, is painful to look at (it had to be taken to the dump, being soiled from where they brought my brother in from where he collapsed.)
The span of that empty space is as wide as our grief..
I wish my brother been here long enough to see it, but I'm glad I wrote The Book of Barkley. I know some people looked at it and said "oh, another dog book" or "I don't have a dog" and then click past the page to the more exciting genres. But it's more than a book about a dog, it's about my brother and I, how our lives grew together, then apart, then back again, into that house where there were so many memories. Barkley was simply the change that made this lonely road warrior look at my life and my faith in a whole different manner, so that the end days, when they came, were sweetened by the joy that we have shared, and the joy that awaits us, together in heaven.
As I left the house that last time, I gave my Dad a big hug at the front door, told him I loved him, went to the car, climbed in and started the engine, then got out and ran back to him and gave him one last hug. For it might well be the last one. We are not related by blood but we are, by life lived, commitment honored and memories made. He touched my check, with work weary, dry, thin hands, an old man's fingers, yet still his hands, my Daddy's hands, touching my rosy cheek where the strength of his blood still flows within me, will flow, even after his long journey back to his reward.
I looked at the house as I left it that last time, all of Big Bro's things on the wall. All of those memories seemed to condense in it, as if the house alone were the source of them, shining from it from that big picture window, glimpsed just for a second as my rental car pulls away, like that 10 point whitetail you see the split second after he sees you, when he's already gone, even as you yearn for him to return.