Farther along we'll know more about it
Farther along we'll understand why
Cheer up my brother live in the sunshine
We'll understand it all by and by.
- "Farther Along," Traditional.
There's a hole in the world today where my father used to be. He died yesterday shortly after 1 p.m. We were there at the side of his hospital bed.
His breathing was labored and loud, the classic death rattle. My mother was holding his hand and telling him it was okay to go, but he wouldn't.
I should have known: Dad was waiting for the priest, the final Good Housekeeping Catholic seal of approval. Because as soon as the priest (a diminutive Italian man with snowy hair and a heavy accent) traced a cross on my dad's forehead with oil, my father stopped breathing.
My dad always did like to do things by the book.
Like most families, we have family shorthand - lots of odd sayings that are so far rooted in the distant past, we can barely recall the origins. Last night, as we gathered around my mother's dining room table, we used them all.
"Trash night, fellas," one of my brothers said. We all laughed. That was something we heard once a week through our entire childhood.
He also made use of all the classic Dad lines: "Close that door, what are you, heating the outside?" or, if we stubbed our toes: "What the hell'd I tell you kids about running around the house in your bare feet?"
But he also came up with some new ones. Some variation on this: "That's it, keep it up, you'll break it and then you'll be saying, 'Boy, I wish I had a ...' " (The next word was usually "chair" - because we were always leaning back on two legs of the dining room chairs while we did our homework - or "railing," because we liked to hang onto the railing as we jumped off the final step going downstairs.) Another one that we didn't really understand when we were kids was grounded in the story that, although we were poor, my parents somehow managed to take five kids for a week at the shore every year. Problem was, there wasn't much more money left over once we were there, and being kids, we of course asked for everything we saw: Rides, pizza, ice cream, cotton candy. Finally, one night on the boardwalk, he snapped. "Can I, get me, buy me this, is that all I get," he said.
Well, we thought it was funny. So we used to chant it. We had no idea the frustration it was for my parents, saying no all the time. We didn't understand (although of course my father often told us) that money didn't grow on trees. He was a grownup. Of course he had money! He was Our Dad.
I get my mechanical aptitude and a can-do attitude from Dad. On the rare Saturday mornings he was home and had some household project looming, my brothers would get up early and take off before he could nab them. So I was the one who held the flashlight while he worked. I remember the small, beautiful blobs of molten metal as he used a soldering gun, the smell of fresh wood as he worked a hand plane. I learned how to use a saw, how to steady a piece of wood in the vise clamp on his workbench.
He was a man of few words, and when he got sick, fewer. A few months ago, when I called to see how he was, he said, "Fine. You want to talk to your mother?"
"What, did you run out of words?" I said, amused.
"Yeah, I was already talking to your brother this morning and I used them all up," he said.
That's my dad.
No more words now. But that's okay. Because though he always accused us of not listening, we were. And we won't forget a single thing he ever said.
Trash night, fellas!