The flight to Palm Springs California traverses the great deserts of Utah, Arizona and California. Red rock mountains plateau to brown mesa palettes channeled with gray wash erosions. No floods will flash today among the dusty traces where off-roaders and mining trucks have etched long, straight paths bearing into the heat. I can see their horizons from above and the canyons bringing halt, endpoints becoming destinations of necessity.
I cross this wilderness to see my father who lives in the last oasis interrupting the desert’s march to the sea, a mosaic of golf-green and planted palms relieving the otherwise gone-brown world. From the pressurized solitude, I contemplate the life that carried him here, his journey approaching 90 years, and as his son, accompanying two-thirds. His career spent crossing seas and chasing fortune, triumph and loss resolving to this desert passage, and to a new home that will shelter to the last.
A year had passed since I had seen my father in person. FaceTime and Zoom inadequately placeholding physical presence while we waited out the pandemic and prayed that our luck would hold, and that there would be at least one more chance to be really together. That dread relieved first with one shot and then another, and the realization we would not lose Dad to this virus. The initial anxieties of enforced absence have hardened into a deeper perception of finite time, a sum-certain without enumeration. As my flight descended, urgency becomes a physical presence, first in nervous shpilkes, then excitement and finally a sense of joy-relief.
The white car swings around the terminal loop stopping curbside in front of me, my sister Atma jumping out to help with my luggage, moving swiftly to dodge the cops patrolling the airport no-stopping zone. Dad, the front seat passenger, face lit with smile, rolls down his window, leans out and kisses me as I stand. I feel his beard stubble against my cheek and memory flashes to other kisses; Zaida visits from childhood. I compare the mental snapshot from last February. How much has changed, what further losses has time imposed? Dad moves deliberately, managing his deli sandwich with a little uncertainty, showing effort in simple acts. Our conversation flows with steady cognition. Names and all the recent events intact, all the grandchildren questions on point. OK. Dad is OK. Still here, still himself. Just old.
My parents moved to Palm Springs to be close to Atma and she responded with commitment and devotion during our mother’s final illness and afterwards, Dad’s life without her. She has made so much good possible for Dad, and our separation could not have been borne without the knowledge of her steadfast love and effort to protect.
Our visit proceeds. More restaurants, short walks and store visits to the reopened downtown. Home-made challah, a kitchen Shabbat, time and space shared in quiet reverence of just being together. I am finally feeling freed from the need to measure and assess how much has been lost and how much remains. Dad’s loneliness is a grief for our mother that his children cannot wish, or phone or visit away. Being together is its own comfort however and we linger in this embrace. We drive to the cemetery with polished stones in pocket, gifts to Mom of our remembrance and enduring love. The cemetery gates are closed and locked, the laminated sign declaring covid hours, the separation between life and death made tangible, as if we did not already know. I crack wise that the place is locked “since people are dying to get in.” Dad and Atma groan and laugh. I am only slightly disappointed; I returned this way for the living, and we have shared another irreplaceable moment.
The visit has rushed by in its gentle accompaniment, taken at Dad’s senior pace. A sense of peace and solidity is shared among us despite the sadness of departure and unspoken fear about when we might be together again. We have finally grown up and matured completely, connected with ease and calm. We are no longer set to wander, wayfinding through chaos and uncertainty. We inhabit an expanse apprehended in its entirety, a life narrative that has become whole and fully realized. This spring we will assemble for our Zoom Seder. We will tell the old stories and the new ones too. Mostly, through the observance of Passover ritual, we will express the most important story, of our life joined together in love, the story of our family.
Howard Wiseman writes from Sharon.