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Stephanie Gertler Headshot

Me and You and a Dog Named Walter

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This past week was my father's 94th birthday. We had lunch. The three of us: Dad, his care giver and me. I chose a restaurant that was familiar to him and yet he asked, at least 10 times, how I found the place. Even though the waiters knew him; even though he goes there weekly.

We shared a glass of Veuve Cliquot because a birthday has never been a birthday in our family without a glass of champagne. We shared a slice of chocolate cake with a candle in it, and yet he couldn't figure out how to blow out the candle. But the toughest part for him was the notion of making a wish. Make a wish and don't tell anyone, I said. And he just stared at the flickering candle. Go ahead. Make a wish. And after what seemed an eternity of consternation, he said he had a wish and I urged him not to say what it is aloud. I have a good wish, he said. And then he drew in his breath and blew out the candle. My guess is that the reason he didn't tell me the wish is because, within a moment, he forgot what it was.

After lunch with my father, I wondered if it is better that he is strong of heart rather than strong of mind. I had no answer because I want both for him. Throughout his life, my father was always vocal. Vociferous, in fact. Had he been a pendulum, he would have swung wildly, shifting between the sweet and the acerbic with no warning at all. The smallest infraction could set him off yet sentiment (babies, puppies, handmade cards, a verse of poetry, the bloom on a rose in his garden) brought tears to his eyes. The day that we had lunch, he was mostly sweet except when the waiter directed me to the downstairs rest room and my father felt his directions were vague as he waved his hand in an upward fashion. My former father made an appearance, the blood rushing to his face as he chastised the waiter for his imprecision. Ten years ago, I would have paled, suffered embarrassment, worried that my father would "go off." That afternoon, I patted my father's hand and explained that from where he was sitting, from his vantage point, the waiter's hand seemed to point in another direction. To me, I said, the directions were clear. He calmed. Years ago, he would not have calmed. Years ago, I would not have had the courage to calm him.

The following day was my father-in-law's unveiling. In the Jewish religion, this is the ceremonial way in which people dedicate the headstone. One year ago in March, my father-in-law fell while slipping on his shoes. It appeared to be uneventful except for a slight knock to his head. He went to dinner that night, watched television and then, around two in the morning, he lost consciousness. He suffered a subdural hematoma from the fall and roughly nine days later, still comatose despite the efforts of the surgeon, he died. He wasn't well when he had the fall. He suffered from coronary disease that promised to impair his life more profoundly if the year had gone on. We like to think that somehow he made a choice. There were only seven of us at the graveside: his wife, son, daughter, two granddaughters, his son-in-law and me. Everyone spoke but me. I didn't know what to say. I had given my eulogy a year before and it was from my heart. I suppose I didn't speak because I was still thinking about lunch with my father and about my mother's grave in another cemetery as I looked at the headstones that surrounded my father-in-law: His parents, uncles, aunts, sister, brother-in-law, cousins and one whose name no one recognized and we joked about who the interloper might be.

That night, Mark and I had dinner on our terrace. It was the first evening since spring began when the air was balmy and a warm breeze came from our sliver view of the Hudson River. We drank wine and talked. My father-in-law was younger than my husband is now when I met him and my father was just a year older than my husband is now when they first met. Now, both of our fathers are gone in one form or another. I wondered out loud if time flies the way it does because we're just not paying close enough attention to the moment. I wondered what life would be like if we didn't live in New York City where we pay a premium for everything and work crazy hours to do so. If only our days didn't begin at six in the morning and end at midnight and vacations weren't something that we planned with stolen days away only to return to mounds of paper and to-do lists from time "lost."

My husband said that we should hit the road for a week this summer with our dog Walter. Just drive with no specific destination and see where we land. I suggested somewhere in Canada -- maybe Banff, Vancouver -- and he reminded me that it would just be one week. We don't have that much time, he said. One week doesn't get you far. Before we know it, we'd just have to turn around again. We bandied it about as we cleared dishes, looked at the clock and said we'd better get some sleep since it was almost midnight. Maybe we'll hit the road after Labor Day when the crowds lessen, we said. Maybe we can take two weeks not one, we mused. Maybe we should consider that we've always wanted to take a road trip without the kids (something we did so often when they were little and sat in the back seats of our van playing word games, singing songs, sometimes bickering). Maybe in the scheme of things, two weeks is not going to make us or break us when it comes to a lifetime. No more Maybe's, I thought as we fell asleep. Two weeks: We definitely need to think about that.