Dad turned 85 last March. I'd been trying to get back to Colorado to see him, but I didn't make the time until summer, after his heart had landed him briefly in the hospital. He'd gotten out okay, but my sister said he was 15 pounds underweight; she was worried about him.
My flight touched down and I drove the rental car due north out of Denver and across Colorado's high plains, where the towns along the Rockies get smaller and smaller. Dad lived in one of the smallest, and when I pulled up in front of his house, he was sitting on the porch, tethered and tubed for oxygen for the first time. He smiled when he saw me, though, and as I stepped towards him I could see his eyes were wet behind his glasses.
"Hey old man, how you doing?" I said, grinning.
"Hungry," he said.
I was staying for a week. In the morning, I drove to the nearest city and hit up a typical suburban food store, which seemed as big as Dad's whole town. I loaded up on fresh fruit, organic chickens, lean beef and the vegetables his new diet allowed. In the Mexican food aisle, I picked out black beans and tortillas and mild green chilies; Dad is Scottish, but he loves that stuff, and my stepmom never cooks it anymore. I bought lemons and garlic and sweet corn and cilantro and a pink chunk of fresh ahi, packing everything into the back of his pickup.
Back home, while he napped, I stuffed the chickens with lemons, dousing them with a garlicky marinade. As they roasted, I cooked like a madman, packing his fridge with potato salad, tangy coleslaw, fresh guacamole and spaghetti sauce swimming with chunks of mushroom. I set out bowls of fruit: heavy red peaches, sweet black grapes, bananas and strawberries and perfect Washington cherries whose pits I spit out his back door and into his rose garden.
The first night I served him burgers and sweet corn. We dined outside on the porch, and Dad munched all of it down without much talk. He seemed smaller than last year, frail and as skinny as the alfalfa growing across the road, the skin on his arms loose and droopy. He held his knife in a childlike grip, with swollen fingers, and as he ate, bits of corn caught in his stubble. In the west, against the purple Rockies, white thunderheads rose and fell in silent fury.
The week went smoothly. Dad checked his oxygen levels every few hours and his blood pressure at night, and between meals we talked a little -- about his life as a boy, growing up dirt poor in western Colorado; about awkward dinners I remembered from high school, when his and Mom's marriage was collapsing; about my brother's suicide, years ago, which still haunts both of us.
Dad took a rest every afternoon, and in those hours I weeded his patio and pruned the rosebushes that were threatening to swallow his garage. I took out his trash and turned his compost. Before dinner, we took short walks around his neighborhood, Dad shuffling along in his big white tennis shoes. Back home, we ate burritos, or chicken sandwiches with slaw or potato salad.
One night, I'd planned a special meal: fettuccine with fresh tuna, lemon, diced tomatoes and oregano. Crisp and tart, it was a perfect summer dish, hot or cold, and I served it with salads -- chopped iceberg per his diet, romaine for me. Dad opened a bottle of wine.
"Hey, this is real good," he said, bending over his plate. "Tasty."
Sitting there eating with him on the porch, I thought about how Dad wasn't going to be around much longer. He's a staunch Republican, and I voted for Obama. He never talks about his feelings, although sometimes he gives himself away. Flying out to see him was worth the effort, and eating together gave us a way to connect.
The last morning, I made a pot of stock from the chicken bones and chopped up the remaining fruit into a salad. I labeled the leftovers so he could find everything in the fridge. I was leaving after breakfast, after Dad unhooked his oxygen and walked with me out to the car. He seemed happy I'd come, and as we hugged goodbye, I wondered -- like I always do these days -- if it was the last time I'd see him alive.
As I drove away, Dad stood on his lawn, waving slowly and shading his eyes from the morning sun. I felt a familiar sadness. Still, watching him in my rearview mirror, I thought for now he looked a little fatter.