Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Pink Hats, Part IX: Life is too Short for Playing It Safe

Women are instinctive, Jessie knew that much, and in the past few weeks, her instincts had been working overtime. Surprising her with coffee first thing in the morning meant Bob had done his homework: he checked her schedule to make certain she was working and brought something special, a "box of chocolates" in the guise of a large mocha. Dinner at Grace Restaurant was her idea of giving him a glimpse, but only a glimpse, of the cards she was holding, and things had gone on from there. Those same instincts woke her from a sound sleep two hours before the alarm on a Sunday morning, whispering, Go to New Hampshire, talk to your father.

By nine-thirty, she and Sam were on 95, halfway across the Piscataqua Bridge, the point at which you leave Maine and enter the Land of No Sales Tax. From Portsmouth, she'd hop over to I-93. We’ll be in Concord before dad can shake hands with the vicar and tell him it was a fine sermon, she thought. 

A dedicated religious skeptic, her father married a 23 year old high school biology teacher and devout Episcopalian he met at a Grange Hall dance. That was 1975. Prior to, he did a stint in the Army complete with what he enjoyed calling an “all-expenses-paid vacation in Viet Nam.” Afterward, there was college and vet school. Seventeen years and three children later, she was killed when her car slid off an icy road and down a rocky embankment, the week after Christmas. The Sunday following her funeral, he walked into Concord's Grace Episcopal Church, and took a seat in the pew closest to the rear exit.

Jessie was thirteen, her sister eleven, and their brother sixteen. Somehow, they pulled together, and he managed to get them all through college, medical and veterinary school as a single parent. It took ten years for him to move from the back of his wife’s parish to the front row of pews, and five more to prompt him to enter the permanent diaconate. No one was more surprised than he. If you asked, he'd still say he was skeptical of religion, but this way, he feels closer to his wife. He'd also say it makes more sense to let his doubts argue directly with their source, rather than stand in the street and throw rocks at the windows. It’s the way he's generally approached life.

Jessie and Sam were waiting when he pulled his truck onto the meandering unpaved driveway that wandered through his five acres of orchards and tall grass. He was barely out of the truck when Sam was practically on top of him. Tail wagging wildly, he grabbed a hand as though it was a soft chew toy and led him back to the house. Sam was in charge of this walk. 

"And to what do I owe the pleasure?" he asked, wrapping his life-sized grizzly/teddy bear arms around his daughter and raising her on tip-toe, "my birthday isn't until next month." At 72, his strength never ceased to amaze.

"I missed you. I've been busy, you've been busy, and I decided I didn't want to wait."

He held her at arm's length. “Well, I'm glad to see you, too, honey." His eyebrow just then did a "Mr. Spock," and he added, "Hold on, something's different. Did you change your hair?"

She smiled and dropped her eyes, "It is? Leave it for you to notice. No, my hair's the same. What's that?" She nodded in the direction of a brown paper package he'd laid on the wicker porch table. She's changing the subject, he noticed.

"Bake sale at church. Abby Johnson's cinnamon rolls. You're mother would kill us both, if she knew. Twice the sugar, three times the fat, and all the flavor -- come on in, let's make coffee and put a dent in these."

Jessie's mother hadn't been a flower child, but she had sympathies. Organic farming was new and she threw herself into a study of its health benefits and used their orchard and large garden to experiment. Refined sugar and excess fat were strict no-nos at the dinner table except on holidays, and then she pulled out all the stops.

"Okay, sweetheart," he said, wiping his mouth with a cloth napkin that mimicked a black and tan chessboard, "time for you to tell dad what really brought you all this way on the spur of the moment."

"I told you, it's because I missed --"

"No, no, no. My hearing is still good, apart from that incessant ringing, and Alzheimer's I don't have. Not yet. Let's cut to the chase."

"It's called tinnitus and aspirin therapy is probably to blame -- it's the price we pay for the damage Abby Johnson's baking does to our arteries. Tell your doctor, maybe he'll adjust the dose – and, I’ve met someone. That sounds recent, but we've either known or known of each other since medical school. Anyway, we've started dating and I…wanted to tell you about him."

"Former student?" He took a sip from a white bistro-styled cup with the letters U-N-E stenciled in light and dark blue down the side. Jessie brought home a set of four after her med school interview and he used one every day until she received her letter of admission, "for luck." It was the same with her younger sister.

Jessie took a deep breath, and said, "He was one of my clinical professors in pediatrics.”

He stopped in mid-sip, lowered his cup, and set it carefully on the table. “I see.”

“You're enjoying watching me squirm, aren’t you?”

“Of course,” he said, smiling smugly and then ducking as she pretended to throw her empty cup at his head. And that’s how the conversation went, with her tracing the outline of her relationship with Bob while he tried to listen without making her smile and lose her train of thought. It reminded her of the way she and Bob were, and silently she breathed a prayer of thanks to her mother for finding a man like her father.

“I could make it easy and say I like him, and I do, but it’s deeper than that. I think I’m in love with him, dad. He’s older, as you’ve probably already guessed, and while that’s not a problem for me, I wasn’t sure how you’d feel about it…?”

“I think you’ve both been incredibly patient, to wait this long. What held him back, do you know?”

“Partly, he was recovering from his divorce and didn’t want to drag me into a messy situation. But he was also concerned, particularly during my residency, that no one could say my accomplishments were a consequence of him being in the background, covering for me. He wanted me to be able to take credit for my own work and be recognized for it. Meanwhile, I had no idea what was going on. We talked fairly often and even had lunch in the cafeteria a few times, but he consistently kept his feelings under wraps. When he told me all of this over lunch yesterday, I was speechless.”

“Not hard to understand why. Let’s go out on the front porch.” He stood up and walked over to a walnut secretary that stood against the wall in the dining room, opened a drawer and began rummaging around, eventually lifting a up an old pipe, an unopened tin of tobacco, and a box of matches. “I haven’t smoked this in years, not since your mother. But right now, it strikes me as a good idea.”

She settled in a large wicker chair letting her legs hang over one arm. Sam curled up at her feet and began snoring while her father lit his pipe and took a seat on the wide porch swing. Almost fifteen minutes passed before he said anything. “Baby,” -- he would call her that to his dying day -- “I think you may have found the pearl of great price. I don’t quote the Bible often, but I haven’t known many men who would put their girlfriend’s interests above their own quite like that, certainly not for five and a half years. Maybe it’s because of his age and presumed maturity or because he’s been divorced, but it sounds to me like he knows without question what’s important to him, and who.

Now, you wondered how I’d feel about his age. Well, the best answer I have for that is, your mother and I had nineteen years, seventeen of them married. If I had it to do over again, knowing I’d lose her and there was nothing I could do about it, I’d marry her in a heartbeat. If you love this man, and it sure looks like he loves you, whether he knows it or not, you’ve got something worth holding onto. Life is far too short to play it safe.” 

He knocked the ashes from his pipe on the railing and said, “This wasn’t near as good as I remembered it.”

She laughed. “Unlike Abby’s sweet rolls that get better each time she bakes them. I want you to meet Bob, and soon.”

“Oh, that’s a given, and the sooner the better. If I’m going to have a son-in-law, I need to start getting used to the idea.”

“Who said anything about a son-in-law?”

“You did. I saw it on your face when I said what I said about life being too short. And it is, Baby, never forget that.”

(Creative Commons Image of the Piscataqua Bridge, NH by plousia via Flickr)
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