I am on the train into Seattle, and it is pouring outside. Rain streaks down the window next to my head, and tears streak down my face as I stare at my cell phone. The woman next to me is sound asleep, slouched against her backpack, and the man across from me is reading on his tablet. The steady, rhythmic thrump, thrump, thrump of the train is loud, so they do not hear me when a sob escapes.
I am looking at the game app, Words with Friends. I am remembering when I installed it on my father’s iPad, and the delight on his face when he looked at it and could read all the letters. He was almost blind with macular degeneration, and the iPad enlarged his life. He could read on the Kindle app, making the font huge in order to see the letters. He could get the daily news or the score on the New York Giant’s game, and by spreading his fingers on the screen he could make the type or photos large enough to make out details. He could email his work buddies – those who were still alive – and receive pictures of the great grandchildren from his grandkids. It was a portal to the world.
And his favorite part of the portal was Words with Friends. He had always been a Scrabble guy, and loved crossword puzzles. He had jumped at the chance to be able to play a word game with the iPad.
And did he love to win! Whenever we played Scrabble, his rule was that whoever lost had to call the winner “Champ” until the next game. I considered getting him a hat with “Champ” embroidered on it so he could feel that way all the time. Knowing how much he loved an “inside edge,” I told him there were anagram apps that let you put in your letters to see what words could be made, his face lit up and he said, “Get me that one, too, would you?”
After I downloaded it, I said, “It’s cheating you know…” He nodded. “Okay, Kid. But I won’t cheat with you.” (We both knew he was lying.)
He lived with us for eight years in the converted garage that was the guest house. He helped Anne, my partner, with the gardens by overseeing the watering of the vegetables, calling himself the “Chief Hydro-Engineer.”
Nearly deaf, he tuned into CNN and Mariner ball games on his television at high decibel — we could hear the games from our own living room, across the deck from his. And he played Words with Friends with everyone who sent him an invitation. His three daughters and two of my sons-in-law played with him, as well as several of their friends. I can still see him in that oversized La-z-boy recliner, his cat Fiona in his lap, his iPad on the soft arm of the chair. He would visit with me until he heard the Words with Friends ‘ding,’ then conversation stopped while he could look over their play, after which we would resume the exchange . In the summertime, when all the windows were up, whenever I played a high-scoring word, I would hear him yell, “Ouch!” from across the deck.
When he moved to northern New York to live with my brother, it was tough on all of us. Everything in me tensed up seeing him being wheeled toward the plane, the cat carrier on his lap with Fiona in it, and the small travel bag containing his medicine and his iPad wedged in against the carrier. Despite his six-foot-three frame, he looked thin and frail. He had the attendant stop for a moment, and motioned me over. “Thanks for everything, Kid,” he said, reaching up to hug me.
“You’re welcome, Dad,” I said, “Thank you for everything, too.”
“You’re welcome, too,” He’d said.
“Call me when you arrive in Syracuse. I love you,” I kissed him on the cheek, and stood trying unsuccessfully not to cry watching them wheel him onto the jet way. It was the last time I talked to him in person.
Once he was settled, I called him on his cell phone – always an exercise in shouting and patience. I asked him how he wanted to hear from me, and how often. I thought he might want me to call at a predictable time, like Sundays, as I had when Mom was alive.
“Can we talk through the game?” He had asked.
“Chat through the word game?” I shouted.
“Yeah. Would that work?” He yelled back.
“Will it be enough?” It seemed so impersonal.
“Yes. I would like that. We can call when we need to.”
And so it was that a couple of times a week, we would chat through Words with Friends. I learned that my brother had built a ramp into the little house so that Dad could use his scooter to go places. Ogdensburg was his home town, so he knew his way around very well. He would take a lunch that my brother had packed, and head out to the Oswegatchie River, where he had grown up. I could picture him bumping along on his red scooter to the path by the river, and stopping under a tree to eat his sandwich. The smells, the water, kids fishing. He was enjoying it all.
I had always wished for Dad that when his time came it would be painless. That it would not involve tubes and hospitals and doctors whispering to the family. A drawn out hospital stay would have been so hard for him. He had had a lot of physical pain in his life, and I’d always hoped that he wouldn’t have to have more at the end. I set that wish aside as I received little reports on his life, since right then he seemed to be scootering his way through one happy day after another.
From my brother I learned that people would report seeing Dad not only by the river, but out getting groceries, shopping at Kinney Drugs, and generally having the run of the town. I knew it was a measure of independence that he hadn’t had out here in Washington. My eighty-seven year old dad was being spotted all over the ‘burg in his blue fishing hat and white cotton jacket. I was happy for his freedom.
So I was shocked the day I answered the phone and my brother sobbed on the other end, “Dad passed away! He’s gone! He’s here in the chair… I don’t know what to do…”
It was a rare thing for my competent brother to be so beside himself that he couldn’t think. We talked about what should happen. I stayed on the line with him, asking questions. Keeping him company until the paramedics came. Until he could talk in sentences.
“Call me later,” I said as we hung up.
When he called the next day he was calmer. He explained that he had come home to find dad in his chair, slumped over. Already gone.
“It seems so impossible,” I said. “He had just played Words with me a couple of hours before. And he was winning! I can’t believe he would go when he was winning…”
“I know. I can’t believe it either.”
Which brings me back here to the train.
I am looking again at the chat that I had been having with my father a couple of days before he left us. He was celebrating the final arrival of spring in that cold, northern town:
DocBracy: Free at last, free at last! I scootered for nearly 3 hours today! Yeah! Bob got my scooter working!
SeattleK8: Wow – You must feel like you are out of jail!
DocBracy: That’s a fact. Had lunch down by the river. I went grocery shopping this morning,
and will go again this aft.
SeattleK8: Busy boy!
DocBracy: You bet! Weather like yours, 70s.
In these last several days since he died I keep hearing his voice. It comes at unexpected moments, when I am busy with housework, or sitting and reading. It doesn’t seem like my imagination, it seems more like he is on my internal PA system. Loud. Clear as a bell.
I stare down at my phone again, and read his little message, “Free at last, free at last!”
Distractedly, I check the Words with Friends “Word of the Day.”
I begin to laugh, despite my tears.
Here is the screen shot:
Yes. “PFFT.” A rare word. Today of all days. How did he manage that?
I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry, so I am doing some of each. And I hear his voice again. The same phrase that has been interjected at odd moments over the past few days. It is unmistakably his voice. And I am grateful – for ‘PFFT’ and for him, and for his message now.
Yes, definitely his voice, “You done good, Kid.”
A few last words with Dad.