Sage

By Hilary Carr | May 05, 2010

We had spent the past week attending doctor's appointments searching for a way to palliate his pain. It was bad now, constant and foreboding. The choices were stark. It was either an amputation or mounting, excruciating pain. The doctors warned that with his precarious heart condition he would probably not live through an amputation. But how could he sustain the living torture he was now enduring? Either way, his future hung in the balance and its heaviness permeated all our thoughts.

The care of his feet was paramount. These same feet that had taken my inquisitive dad around the world and back were now dark and gangrenous, lifeless. His world was now confined to an armchair. I helped Mother perform the daily rituals; bringing in the basin of warm water, washing and patting his feet dry, easing the soft fingers of lamb's wool carefully between his old toes, wrapping them in a loose white sock, sliding on the old slippers, now slit to encase his feet lightly.

My visit was ending. I packed my things and got ready to leave, dressed up for the trip, as was the custom in those days. Then I went in to spend the last hour or so sitting with Dad. It surprised me when he asked me to go drive him to Point Lobos, just the two of us.

"Do we have time?" I was worried about missing my flight.

"Of course," he insisted.

"Should I change?" I asked.

"Don't bother," he said. "Let's go!"

He loved Point Lobos. It was his sanctuary. Determination got him through the difficult logistics from chair to wheelchair to car. It put him into a sweat. We set out in his old yellow Buick, sharing the long front seat, looking ahead. With a sideways glance I could see the deep green tourmaline of his wedding ring pulsing on the seat between us, long slim fingers clinching in pain, opening and closing. We blinked back tears. It reminded me of my 10-year-old moment with him at the Met when his beloved Renata Tebaldi sang his favorite aria from "La Traviata." He had nudged me to pay particular attention. I remember watching my quiet engineer of a father crying openly in sheer delight.

We drove on in silence. Words jammed in my throat, wooden and dry. When at last we reached the Allen Memorial Grove he signaled me to stop.

"You walk the path," he said. "I'll wait here."

And that was how it went.

I set out running down the path, awkward and wobbly in my high heels, my suit, costumes of my city life. Now I was sobbing, his clear instructions ringing in my ears.

"Don't miss the sage before the path opens wide into the glen.

At the opening you will see the old Cyprus looking witchier than ever, bent over and gnarled, propped up with wires now. Stop there.

This marks the spot where you can see and hear the sea lions barking across from Seal Rock. They are magnificent."

I took a breath here and watched as the enormous animals sunned and squawked, hanging off their rocky ledge. Then I checked my watch and hurrying I set out again. His words came back.

"As you head out to the point be careful ... the dirt path is steep and narrow.

Let the wind fill your ears. Sit down out there and notice the tiny tough ice plant and see how it manages to cling to the rocks and thrive. It should be in full bloom now."

He's right, I thought. He knows this path so well. He loves mesembryanthemum. It is partly for its color and its tenacious grip on life, against all odds, so like him now, and partly because it took us all so long to learn its name and that had pleased him tremendously.

"This is the best place to view big Pacific rollers as they build in from the west.

You'll taste the salty spume on your lips."

His voice urged me on.

"Around the corner is the deep crevasse the ocean has etched out. It has made the perfect place for the otters to dive and play in the waves. Some of them manage to surge in and out on the surf while they crack their abalone shells and scoop out a meal."

I stopped again. Otter families frolicked below, carelessly and easily. My insides were out of sync with this tempo of life. I resisted looking at my watch, but knots in my stomach warned me of the time slipping away. Why couldn't I just be here?

I headed over the stone path through the Cyprus grove and heard his words again:

"Go slowly through this primeval place. Check the moss and lichen of undisturbed years.

It will open to another cove that is much quieter, more protected. There is a great spot to sit and watch the gulls screech as they scavenge for their perfect dinner.

Then the path will lead you back through low lying bracken. Notice the whiff of sage everywhere. This is where I snip the cuttings that I stuff in my letters to you.

I'll be waiting here. Take your time."

Flying away that afternoon I walked his path a thousand times. I had felt so torn running through Dad's sanctuary without him by my side, knowing that this had been the final hour, the last goodbye. I had so wanted words, a blessing, a heart to heart exchange. As I write this reflection now, 30 years later, I can still close my eyes, smell the sage, hear the bark of the sea lions, taste the salt of the giant Pacific rollers, and hear my dad's voice, a gift beyond words.

Hilary Carr comes to Maine via New York, Toronto and Montreal. Her love of stories is fed by a large Irish family and a lifetime listening to stories as a social worker, therapist, mother and grandmother. She and her husband, David Jones, live in Camden.

 

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