A knock on my front door roused me from the couch the other day. Mary was out of town, the kids were off at college and I was not expecting company. I wondered who it could be.
Ryan, our golden retriever, followed me to the door and looked up at me as I turned the knob. He nudged me out of the way to see who it was. I told him to get back behind me and kept my eye on him for a couple of seconds to make sure he stayed there, in case our visitor was wary of dogs.
When I opened the door, there was my dad. My eyebrows furrowed and I stared at him for a moment. Surprise and confusion spread across my face. Dad died almost twenty years ago. I did not expect him at my front door. However, that was no reason to be rude, so I invited him in.
Wearing his typical flannel shirt with a white t-shirt underneath, Dad followed me to the living room. I motioned to the couch and offered him my spot, the spot I had just settled into before he had knocked. Without a word, he sat in the middle of the couch and leaned back, making himself comfortable.
I lowered myself onto the love-seat, facing perpendicular to the couch , elbows on my knees, hands clasped loosely together.
Ryan sniffed Dad’s hands and Dad scratched him behind the ear. Ryan curled up on the floor in front of the fireplace, where he could keep one eye on Dad and one eye on me.
Neither of us said anything for a moment.
Sensing a slight bit of awkwardness, I got the ball rolling.
“So, what’s up, Dad?”
His right arm draped over the back of the couch, his left hand on his thigh, he glanced slightly upward and answered slyly, “The ceiling… the roof… the sky.”
He smiled devilishly.
I looked down at the floor between my feet, nodded and smiled.
A dad joke. Great.
I started to ask where he had been but then thought better of it. Instead, I waited for him to lead this conversation.
After a moment of taking in the room, Dad’s eyes settled back on me.
“How’s it been going, son?”
“Okay,” I started and then briefly detailed where Mary was off to and how work was and how life in general was going for me. He listened without saying anything or doing anything, without even nodding. I got the sense that he was being patient with me, that I was somehow rambling, even though I had only spoken a sentence or two, so I stopped.
“And how about the kids, how have they been?” he asked, his voice low and gravelly, just as I remembered it.
I started to tell him about their past week at college.
He interrupted me, “No, what have they been up to?”
“Since when?” I asked.
“Since last time we talked.”
I drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. That was a lot of ground to cover. After all, it had been almost twenty years. I pointed that out to him.
“That’s okay, I’ve got time,” he replied with a grin.
I pondered that answer for a second or two and searched for where to begin. I figured I would leave out the bit about his funeral and other events around that time. He probably wouldn’t be too interested in those.
I thought a bit. Then a bit more.
Some of the stories I used to tell him pushed their way into my memory. Usually, anything that resulted in me suffering the brunt of misadventures with either of the kids seemed to tickle Dad back when he was alive. I cautiously started with a few similar stories from when the kids were still quite young, stories that usually ended up with me becoming vexed and on the brink of being overwhelmed.
Those anecdotes seemed funny to me, too, after the fact as they were. They prompted me to smile.
I felt encouraged, so I related some other stories to Dad, accomplishments, adventures, proud moments. I told these slowly at first, but he seemed drawn in by what I told him, sometimes saddened, sometimes amused, always interested. It felt good to tell them. He urged me on.
Even as I was talking, I reflected on how I had sometimes, when I was younger, been uncomfortable with Dad and his stories. I felt as though he enjoyed telling the stories more than the stories themselves were worth. He would embellish and expand and have so much fun with what he was telling that often the story he was telling would bear little resemblance to the real actual event he was describing. And when he told such things at gatherings, it seemed to me that his audience would enjoy his telling as much as he did.
I thought maybe they were just being nice.
I talked a bit more. A strange feeling overtook me, a feeling that maybe I was overstepping my bounds and venturing into territory that was really Dad’s. It was unusual for me to most of the talking and there were things I wanted to ask Dad but he did not seem to be in the mood to speak all that much. Instead, he egged me on.
So I told him a few more of the antics the kids had been up to. I added a bit, just a bit, to some of the tales and Dad delighted in what I related. He also seemed genuinely pleased with the way I was becoming more caught up in my own stories.
Then I remembered a time when the kids spun a wild, convoluted tale out of thin air, bit by bit, detail by detail, until they had me completely bamboozled.
My laugh slowly melted into a proud smile.
I told Dad that the kids had grown and were no longer kids, but persons, people, adults, sometimes they were even adults that other adults looked up to. I told him how proud and how humbled I was at the two individuals they had become.
I thought I detected a wistfulness take over Dad’s face. His gaze, which had been fixed intently on me for much of the conversation, settled on his hands as he gently, pensively wrung them. His eyes seemed to mist up, or, perhaps it were mine that did.
Silence settled in the room. I heard the clock ticking on the wall in the kitchen.
He didn’t have to tell me it was time for him to go. Somehow, I knew.
He told me anyways.
He slowly, reluctantly, pushed himself up. I remained seated. I did not want him to leave. I stared at the floor in front of me.
He gently put his hand on my shoulder and quietly told me to get up.
I followed him to the door.
Ryan got up off the floor and followed closely behind me. When I reached the front door, he edged me out of the way and walked out onto the front porch just in front of me.
Before I could grab Dad to hug him, he was down the steps and on his way out to the street.
Ryan sat. It is our custom, the two of us, to sit on the front porch as visitors leave and bid them farewell. I took my place next to Ryan and instinctively sat beside him.
Dad reached the end of our front sidewalk. He stepped into the street, turned, and waved.
I waved back.
Ryan wagged his tail.
I wondered for a moment how Dad would leave. Would he float away? Would he suddenly disappear? Would he slowly fade?
The route he chose to walk was to my left, up the street toward where we used to live. He walked slowly, hands in his pockets. Though it was warm for February, it was still cold, but, as usual, the cold did not seem to bother Dad.
When he was most of the way up the street, Dad paused very deliberately and turned to face the house next door to where we used to live. Milan lived in that next-door house until he died just last month. Before Milan, there was Milan and his wife, Lisa. Before Milan and Lisa, until their son, Benji, went off to college, it was Milan and Lisa and Benji. Now the house stands empty.
Dad seemed to consider Milan’s house for a moment, and I thought maybe something would happen but nothing did.
Dad simply ambled on, past where we used to live. That house had been torn down and replaced just this past year. Dad hardly gave the new house a glance.
He continued on, around the bend, down the hill, and out of sight.