Penny with her father. (Photo courtesy of Penny Wrenn)
I opened the front door to let the yard guy in. “Come on,” I said. “Talk to my daddy.”
He walked a few steps behind me as I headed toward the TV room where Daddy sits every day in his brown leather Barcalounger.
“Daddy, this is… wait, tell me your name again?”
“Right. Daddy, this is Austin. He just finished clearing out the gutters and stuff outside.”
“How much do we owe you, sir?” Daddy asked.
“A hundred and fifty dollars,” Austin answered. Then, as Daddy begins writing out the check, Austin said, “Are you a veteran, sir?”
“That’s what they tell me,” Daddy said.
“Well, thank you for your service,” Austin replied. He paused, and then, “What you watching there?”
At this point, Austin, who looks like he’s in his thirties, was nearly yelling. He was following my lead, I suppose, since I, too, had been loudly shout-talking with my 85-year-old father even though I was just a couple feet away from him. But now that Austin was in on it — doing that thing that we young people do when interacting with octogenarians, talking loudly and asking patronizing questions — it seemed condescending.
I answered on Daddy’s behalf because he was still writing the check and I didn’t want him to get distracted.
“It’s a Western of some kind,” I said. “That’s all my dad watches.”
Daddy lifted his eyes as if to say, The hell it is. I also watch the Nightly News with Lester Holt and Hardball with Chris Matthews. So I added: “All right, it’s not all you watch, Daddy.”
I turned to Austin to ask, “Do you like Westerns?”
“No, but my grandfather loves them,” he said.
To be clear, I hadn’t asked to see his will, but my father has been in the early stages of preparing to die for as long as I’ve known him.
As a fairly young woman (I’m 38), I am accustomed to people my age comparing my father to their grandfather. And my father is, indeed, both a grandfather and a great-grandfather.
This is what happens when you have an old daddy. And not only do I have an old daddy, but I have always had an old daddy. When I’d call him on weekends from my mom’s house, some part of his body was always malfunctioning — his hand, his arm, his knee, his eye, his chest. He had his first stroke when I was in high school. After which he sent a copy of his will addressed to me at my mother’s house. To be clear, I hadn’t asked to see his will — because what teenager would? — but my father has been in the early stages of preparing to die for as long as I’ve known him.
Maybe it’s the diabetes that he meticulously monitors. Maybe it’s his ongoing cardiovascular issues. He had a heart attack when I was in my mid-twenties. Seeing him in the recovery room after his quintuple bypass, I was sure that he wasn’t long for this world. That was nearly 15 years ago.
Because I’ve always had an old daddy, I’ve probably spent much of my life in a state of pre-mourning for my father — while he is still alive!
According to family folklore, my father’s mother had a saying: “Give me my flowers while I’m still living.” When it comes to my father, my siblings and I take this literally. Since my dad turned 70, we have celebrated almost every birthday as if it’s the last.
I visit Daddy once or twice a year, and every goodbye feels climactic. Each time I leave him, I cry. I cry in the car on the way to the train or bus or plane. Then, when I’m settled in my seat on the train or bus or plane, I cry again while staring out the window as the vehicle pulls away from its location.
Honestly, I thought I’d be a fatherless child by now. This is why I have a bag of mini-cassettes with recorded interviews during which I asked my father about growing up in 19th Street Alley in Birmingham. This is why I whip out my phone when he begins waxing philosophical over lunch at Applebee’s. This is why I ended a shouting match with my oldest brother by saying, “You think you’re just my brother. But you’re more than that! You’re the man who will walk me down the aisle one day. At this rate, Daddy won’t be here when I get married, if I get married. So, you will be standing in Daddy’s place.”
For many years, I’ve been keeping vigil, perennially and unnecessarily, at the side of my aging-but-undying father while he sits parked in his Barcalounger and watches Westerns (Laramie and Cheyenne and Gunsmoke and just about anything with John Wayne) and punctuates his many socio-political observations with “Meanwhile back at the ranch….” And the thing about that is this: I wept after saying goodbye to 75-year-old daddy because I thought I’d never see him again, and then I visited my 80-year-old daddy. I said goodbye to my 80-year-old daddy, and I was sure it would be the last goodbye, and then I kissed my 81-year-old daddy hello. And I mournfully hugged my 81-year-old daddy goodbye, only to say “Look at you with your cane! Looking good!” to my 83-year-old daddy. Church folks call this phenomenon — preparing for an ultimate night yet consistently seeing a new day — grace.
A week before Austin the yard guy came by, I visited my father’s church and, per Daddy’s request, I sang “Amazing Grace.” Little did I know that it’s his favorite song, the song he wants sung at his funeral. There’s nothing more intimidating than singing an old-time hymn at a Black Baptist church by yourself, especially if you’re accompanied by a wailing organ that brings to mind every Come To Jesus moment from every movie as far back as The Green Pastures. All I wanted to do was make it through the song without crying.
For so many years, I’ve cried for my father’s inevitable “passing on to the other side,” as he calls it. And while “Amazing Grace” is the song that Daddy wants to hear at his funeral, as I looked into the pews and at my father with tears shining on his cheeks, I knew for damn sure that this bright Sunday wasn’t that day.
So I sang without crying. I sang to give my Daddy flowers while he yet lives.