Nancy Townsley shares another touching essay about the little moments we’re experiencing during these extraordinary times, and thinks about her dad.
“Hi again,” I say, over speaker phone. I am chopping lettuce. “Why did you ask me when my book will be finished?”
I’ve called Dad back to inquire about this specifically. He almost never asks about my writing, so, when he did, it caught me off guard. But now, I really want to know. This is the third time I’ve talked to him today, in between his afternoon nap and my dinner, which is in the Instant Pot. Chili, probably a bad choice for an 80-degree Monday. I haven’t been to the store in a week, but we had beans and onions and hamburger and stewed tomatoes. And I’m adding a small salad, just iceberg, carrot, and the dregs from an ancient bottle of Wish-Bone Italian dressing.
“What?” he says. He asks me to wait so he can turn the volume down on his Smart TV.
“I’m watching True Grit for the hundredth time,” Dad tells me a few seconds later. “The old one with John Wayne. It’s way better than the new one.” He knows I disagree. Jeff Bridges is brilliant as Rooster Cogburn.
“You brought up my book when we talked earlier,” I say, trying again. “The novel I’m writing. Why did you ask me when it’ll be finished?”
There’s a pause, so I figure he’s considering. Dad clears his throat, coughs. Then he chuckles, like he always does when I say something that amuses him, even when it’s not supposed to. I feel myself getting a little annoyed, like I always do when he’s amused by something I say that’s not meant to be funny.
“I’m serious, Dad,” I repeat, trying not to sound too impatient. He’ll be 90 in July, after all. “Tell me why you asked about my book.”
When my mother passed away in 2013, Dad began an era of self-imposed semi-isolation, just him and their dog, a miniature Schnauzer with a German name: Hilde. He and Mom had been a matched pair, human salt and pepper shakers, one rarely seen without the other. All Dad’s golfing buddies had already died off, and he stopped going to church once Mom wasn’t there to sit with him, mid-sanctuary, where he’d steal glances at his wristwatch if the sermon went past what he considered an adequate amount of time to deliver a message about faith, or hope, or love.
“I’m the last of the Mohicans,” is Dad’s frequent observation nowadays, meaning that his brothers and sister, and Mom’s brothers, and Mom, are all gone. In the months leading up to the coronavirus pandemic, he depended on me and my two sisters—and less frequently, his grandkids—to fill the yawning connectedness gap he felt every day, with Mom not there to have coffee with him, take a drive with him, watch Jeopardy! and re-runs of I Love Lucy with him.
At first, in the early days of quarantine, we insisted he let us do his grocery shopping for him. The elderly were much more likely to come down with the virus than we three sisters, all robust but aging ourselves at 64, 62, and 60. We’d get his list and rush about through the aisles, unmasked then masked, as the evolving protocols suggested, dropping the bags off inside Dad’s garage, blowing him kisses from six feet away.
“You don’t have to do this,” was his consistent refrain, but we did it anyway. We wanted to save him from a lonely death inside a hospital, saying goodbye over FaceTime. We wanted to keep him alive long enough for the next birthday party, the next wedding, the next great-grandchild.
One day around mid-April, Dad had had enough.
“This is stupid,” he told me. “You girls are in the high-risk category, too. I’m going back to doing my own grocery shopping. I’ll be alright.”
We knew better than to argue with the retired commander of a Navy flight squadron. I drove to Dad’s and dropped off a couple masks and a tuna noodle casserole. My older sister took him a meal, too, and my younger sister brought him chocolate cake. Now, we only “see” Dad over Zoom, when we can get it to work, and each of us talks to him by phone at least once a day. He holds Hilde on his lap in his recliner and watches the news or the western channel. Sometimes they take a short walk.
We wonder if we’re doing the right thing, whether what we’re doing is more for him or for ourselves.
So far, Oregon has relatively few cases of COVID-19, compared to Michigan or Texas or California. For a while, Dad called his barber shop every day to see if it had opened back up again. Last week, he got frustrated and drove over to PetSmart. He bought a dog-grooming kit for 30 bucks and gave himself a haircut. He texted me a photo after he was done. His iPhone covered his entire face, but I could still see the top of his snow-white head. I told him it’s hard to take a good selfie in the mirror.
“The front and sides look pretty good,” he said.
The author Jenny Offill lives in the Hudson Valley in New York state. She writes in her novel Weather that when we are young we worry that nothing we do matters, and when we are old we worry that everything we do does. I don’t know where she got that, but it’s exactly right. I’m in the second category now. I’m aware I feel oddly, urgently insistent that my dad tell me why it’s important to him to know when I’ll be finished writing Sunshine Girl. That’s my working title.
Maybe Dad is worried about the virus and that’s why he asked. Maybe he’s hoping he’ll live long enough to see my name printed on the spine of a real book, like he used to read my byline above my newspaper stories. He always subscribed to whatever paper I was working for so he could look for those bylines; first Nancy Lashbrook, then Nancy Krieves when I got married the first time, then Nancy Townsley after I divorced and remarried. Sometimes he read the actual stories, but he rarely commented on them, unless he knew someone I mentioned in the story, which was hardly ever.
One time, though, I wrote about a company that makes thermal imaging cameras for people in the military, so they can see things at night. That story caught his attention. “I’d like to have one of those,” Dad said, about the cameras. “Might come in handy. Maybe you could get me one for Christmas.”
Five minutes go by and we’re still on the phone, a long time for us lately. Dad mentions he’s at the part in True Grit where Mattie Ross runs into the murderer Tom Chaney by a stream and shoots him. It’s a pivotal moment in the script, but I still have my question.
“What do you think, Dad?” I say, like I used to as a kid. One of the family jokes is about how persistent I was, from a young age on. I asked and asked until I got an answer. Perhaps that’s what made me a good reporter. Dad gave me a nickname: Flora Flapjaw.
“I don’t know, Sis,” Dad says. He always calls me Sis, but I’m not the only one. To Dad, each of us sisters is Sis. At different times, for different reasons. “Out of curiosity, I guess.”
Another chuckle, this one a bit brittle. Another few beats of silence. He wants to get back to his movie.
“I just wondered when you thought it might be done, that’s all.” His tone says, This is my final word on the subject. I say so long and hang up. These days, I can’t push Dad too much.
One of my friends worked on her book for 13 years before she sent it out. It took another year for her to find an agent, and two more for her agent to find a publisher. She is what is known as “traditionally published,” with a contract and occasional royalty checks. Someone else I know has written six historical fiction books and self-published them all.
“I just want to write ’em and get ’em out there,” that person told me. “I’m not interested in hassling with all the rest.”
Huh, I think, and return to a certain scene in my book, one I’ve re-written at least five times. Maybe “pig-eyed” really is the way Martin would describe Bob. I type the word pig-eyed. Delete it, type small-eyed. Then pig-eyed again.
I hit save and click out of my Word document. I scan the headlines. Nine-hundred-some more Americans have succumbed today. It feels like the virus is winning. I think of Dad with his shorter hair, his stoicism, and his loneliness, the evening casting long shadows across the east wall of his living room.
His question haunts me. Maybe we can hug soon, before it’s all over.