For 20 years, June always found me in the Midwest, teaching for a writers’ conference. On Father’s Day, I’d call my dad from Iowa City and we’d have one of our formal conversations until he said, “Here’s your mother,” and hand off the phone. I always brought him a gift, though, found on the shelves of a shop that featured work by local artists. As the daughter of a writer and a writer myself, I’m tuned to William Carlos Williams’s famous injunction, “No ideas but in things”; as a result, selecting those gifts was sometimes arduous. A blown glass paperweight? Would Dad think I was saying something about the “load” of his writing? A bronze salamander, symbol of good luck, with the accompanying card that would let him know that there is never loss; seek out renewal whenever possible? But he would surely consider it—most derogatory of all adjectives—sentimental. A hand-carved clock? But he might interpret that as a purposeful emphasis on the passage of time, and that he was getting older.
Time did pass. Dad did get older. Rounds of doctor visits led us to understand he had cancer. He fought it, hard, but finally hospice was called. The day he died, I returned from a meeting at the mortuary to find him sleeping, a relief after the morphine dreams that for over 24 hours had kept him trying to rise again and again from the bed. A few dear friends had come to say their goodbyes, and everyone had stepped out to the porch. Except for my brother, who sat in a patch of sunlight in a corner of the room, quietly reading. It was 5:30, always a lovely time in the family, when friends often stopped by and wine was poured. Indeed, from the porch came the clink of cheese knife against plate, murmur of voices, ting of glassware. I headed out to join them, bearing the papers that my mother needed to sign. As I sat down beside her, my sister’s dog, Milo, somewhere on the other side of the house, emitted a lonesome howl. I didn’t, at the time, know why I stood—why I practically leapt back across the house, and found that Dad’s breathing had shifted. “Go get Mom,” I said to my brother. “Go get everyone.” Only days later did I realize that it had been a scene from the television adaptation of Galworthy’s The Forsyte Saga that made me surge to my feet when I heard Milo’s distant keen: Old Jolyon greets his young friend Irene, and asks her to fetch champagne and glasses. As she steps back across the lawn, she hears Jolyon’s beloved setters begin to howl; she drops the tray and runs to find him dead of a heart attack. Without that novel, which Dad recommended to me when I was in my teens, I don’t think I’d have paid attention to Milo’s wail, and our father would have died with no one in the room but his son. A week or so later, sorting through Dad’s desk, I found that Iowa paperweight, holding down papers against a breeze through a window that would otherwise have scattered them.