Thanksgiving is our extended family’s holiday. My mother, Jean Barth Toll, presided over it until she died in 1999. My father, Seymour Irving Toll, took the reins after her.
Daddy came from Philadelphia, where much of his extended family still lives. The holiday season is sadder now that he’s missing too.
An oxygen tank had arrived at Daddy’s house by the time I visited last April. There wasn’t much wrong with him other than choking episodes caused by weak muscles that made it nearly impossible for him to speak — Daddy, who was a celebrated Philadelphia lawyer, known for beautiful sentences in court, wit and an ability to capture a jury with his stentorian voice (and because he never played down to them).
During my visit, Daddy choked at breakfast. He was safe but upset, so I suggested he return to bed. He shuffled to his chair rail and rode upstairs, made it around the corner, and hauled himself up the three additional steps by holding the banister. On his skinny, 93-year-old legs, he leaned on his walker and inched to his bedroom on feet that flopped like fish.
I propped him in bed but could not get him comfortable. In his agita, he looked straight ahead, as if he were staring at death.
I decided I should embrace the privilege; there is no more intimate experience than death. In the meantime, he was in a state of profound tension and fear. With no scientific basis, I told him oxygen would help. I put tubes in his nostrils and turned on the machine. I said everything would be fine. His breathing slowed and he fell asleep. Every few minutes I checked on him. The machine purred like a human sigh.
He slept peaceful as a newborn for three hours and awoke cherubic and pink, smiling his I-love-you-unconditionally smile. I sat down and he laid his hand on my cheek, warm and comforting. This was the same hand that had tucked me in as a baby, taken care of me during childhood asthma attacks, built picnic tables and cabinets, and tinkered with and repaired any number of objects (often with duct tape he kept in colorful supply). The same hand that labeled whatever he could with Post-it notes; put clips on both pretzel bags and important documents; mixed a world-class martini; baked bûche de Noël and Zuppa Inglese; concocted wicked spaghetti sauce; shook strangers’ hands with vigor and sincerity; flipped the pages of untold newspapers; tapped out legal briefs; typewrote two books; and scrawled in a cursive that had been illegible since age 18, when shrapnel was embedded in his arm early in the Battle of the Bulge. Nowadays that hand gave the okay signal when words were too difficult to make.
His palm on my cheek, Daddy spoke to me, struggling to pronounce the words. I wish I could remember what he said. Suffice to say I felt I was receiving his blessing.
Two-and-a half-weeks later, I was traveling throughout Alabama on a work trip when I received an email. “Daddy’s not eating,” my younger sister wrote. I found a seat toward the back of the bus and cried. Then I asked the driver to drop me at a hotel where I could negotiate a flight north.
I arrived in Philadelphia early the next morning. Daddy was at breakfast barely nibbling miniature pieces of toast and cheese. I remembered him at that same kitchen table many years before, sweaty bandana on his head, back from jogging, bolting down toast and jam and a cup of black coffee before showering and heading downtown to the office.
For the first time in his 93 years, Daddy was too tired to get out of bed the next morning. People came and went, including his youngest sister.
In a remarkable burst of energy, he came downstairs at noon, ate a huge lunch, read through the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer, wolfed down dinner and copped some chocolate from my nephew, his grandson. Then he went back to bed.
At dawn, one of my older sisters rushed in: “Daddy’s dying!” As I jerked awake, my mother’s death came flooding back. It was a sparkling day in Maine. Mom’s hospital bed was next to the window with the view of the Morse River looping through the salt marsh, shiny green spartina grass waving above the high tide line, sandpipers feasting on clam-flats.
We were all there, her four daughters and Daddy. The hospice worker told us it was time; Mom’s feet were cold. We gathered and sang her sea shanties. We sang lullabies she sang us as babies. We recited prayer fragments (“May the Lord bless you and keep you and cause His face to shine upon you”). We said, “We love you; we’ll be fine.” Tears ran down her cheeks.
We watched the cold move up Mom’s legs to her chest and face. And we heard her slow, shallow breathing stop forever.
I ran across the hall as soon as my sister woke me. But I had misheard. Daddy was not dying. Daddy was already dead. He was a ghoulish figure in pajamas, his mouth sunk-in like a person with no teeth, even though he had kept all his. His normally animated face was waxen, his twinkly blue eyes open and emptied. Not 12 hours earlier, he’d asked me to take care of forwarding the New Yorker to his cabin in Maine. He was planning to leave the following week to spend the summer there, as usual.
Daddy looked far away when he was dead. He looked like he could tip over and fall on the floor like an articulated wooden figure. This petrified version of him was haunting. He was separated from himself, completely incommunicado, his silence a dissonance that terrified.
In August we carried out his final wishes. Four daughters and seven of the eight grandchildren spread his ashes on the Morse River, just like we did for Mom. Everyone said our parents were joined in death.
I’m not so sure. I think of Mom as a great blue heron, untethered to any one place, winging her way across the landscape. I see her in the salt marsh or when I walk past the ocean. I also see her flying in Great Falls, Va., and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
I don’t see Daddy in the salt marsh. He was too much a creature of habit to imagine in the wild. In fact, I’m not certain I see him at all. But I hear him. His words overwhelm me. We used to talk about everything. When I was 8 or so, he let me know I was more mule than horse. (Mules follow their own, stubborn wishes, while horses can be whipped into submission.) During my teens, we’d chat over beer and pretzels at night. He worked his tail off, but always had time for me. The summer my mother died, I called him every night.
I feel Daddy is still trying to tell me something. The problem is, I can’t figure out what.
Holiday or no holiday, I think I’ll have to listen more carefully.