Thursday, November 7, 2013

Smoking age

My dad passed away five years and three months ago. I see him in random dreams, hear him in the crackling wit of my siblings, and remember him through a well-worn, highly curated collection of memories. I’ve never been good at remembering, but the few I have are important. They buoy me up when the dreams are few and far between.

I came into my dad’s life when he was already an active St. Vincent de Paul member, and he left mine no less passionate about the welfare of the people most of us don’t see. Or we see and ignore, content with our comfort. One of his regular contributions to the Society was a monthly trip to a local nursing home, where he’d visit with the residents and hand out... gifts. The gifts are key. They're why I laugh whenever I think about it.

I found this and a lot of weird stuff
when I Googled "1980s M&Ms"
As soon as I was old enough to charm the old men with my bowl cut and overbite, as soon as I was mature enough to appreciate the doll collections and family photos of the women there, my dad began to bring me along on those trips. We’d wander around florescent hallways, greeting the orderlies and the disoriented. And we’d go from room to room, handing out M&Ms and cigarettes.

Shortly before each trip, my dad would load up the trunk of our Chevy Celebrity station wagon with economy-sized boxes of M&Ms and a few cartons of Pall Malls. I always got my own bag, and I always accepted the fact that, like the candy, the cigarettes were more a necessity than an indulgence. This was the mid-80s, and I was still bringing a Kool-branded water bottle to tee-ball practice. Smoking was as commonplace as hydration.

After a few months of regular trips with my dad, I grew attached to certain residents who I was especially fond of, or who were especially enamored of me. I reviewed yellowing artwork by prized grandchildren, listened confusedly to bitter rants about deadbeat kids. I saw the chicken coop out back and the stump where the cooks chopped their heads off. I smelled the smells and saw the fits, the age-addled and the catatonic. And I wasn’t scared.

I learned about the sudden disconnect of death when my dad gently explained why a woman we’d been visiting for a while, a great grandma with an impressive collection of Madame Alexander dolls, wasn’t in her room anymore. And I was sad, but not scared.

I can’t rightfully overanalyze how these trips influenced me in the bigger picture. I really enjoy the company of the elderly, and I’d like to think that interest was born in those bright and blinking hallways. But really, I find meaning in the chance I had to experience my dad’s unparalleled compassion firsthand. The rawness of those surroundings. His hovering protection.

When Emilia is finally old enough to understand that life is cyclical and that there is wisdom to be gained from the people who lived entire lifetimes before she ever came screaming into this world. Or, at the very least, when she's old enough to see a stooped, wrinkled person without yelling, "What's that!" I'd like to revive this tradition. It would be good for her. It would be good for me. We'll bring M&Ms. And, depending on nursing home policy, maybe a pack or two of Pall Malls.


2 comments:

  1. Yessssss!! So glad you're back for a post. Love reading your stuff. Love this story. And, am inspired to do the same with Jack.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Gretchen! I always hold your opinion in high esteem as a fellow blogger, mom, etc. Hope preparations for baby #2 are going well!

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