Heaven Can Wait

“What if you die before me?” she asks. “What happens then?”

We’re walking through Paradise Memorial Gardens, across from my mother’s care home. Max, my black lab puppy strains at the leash, lunging closer to the pond where two swans glide gracefully along the duck pond.

She does not realize we’re in a cemetery, an appropriately ironic place to have this difficult conversation. In my lifetime, my mother and I have never talked about death. Like disease of any sort, her religion has taught her to deny death.

Conversely, my father keeps a list called “The Departed,” a sheet torn from a legal pad, the names of friends and acquaintances written in his shaky octogenarian penmanship. It’s taped to the dining room wall of his tiny island cottage, a maudlin catalog of death that grows longer by the moment.

I, too, am surrounded by death. The recent suicide of my husband’s daughter. Our Golden Retriever. A stepmother and stepfather. Ex-husband who overdosed. The death of my career. And the agonizing death of my mother’s brain.

I am not equipped to deal with the grim reality of dying. Or this conversation. By the time we walk home, she’s forgotten the question entirely.

And slowly, I learn to appreciate the moments when life seems worth living.

The Wanderer

“I’m looking into a trans-Siberian adventure next spring,” he announces. Having travelled the US on a Greyhound bus and across Canada on a train recently, my 86-year-old father’s ready to go global.

Russia? Alone? Dad is impulsive and lives to defy, leaving doctors and daughter scratching their heads.

No stranger to spontaneity, I’ve lived a life of rash decisions. Things changed in sobriety. I’m suddenly the responsible parent to a mother with Alzheimer’s and a rebellious teenage father.

To quell his wanderlust, I suggest a European river cruise. Three glossy brochures later, he was sold. But none of his friends was up for the trip.

Cruises aren’t my thing. Cramped in a tiny cabin? A boatload of seniors? Cringe-worthy.

Pushing aside preconceptions, I’ll accompany him on this trip of a lifetime. Because in the end, no one should be alone.

Grateful Ned

I don’t write about my father enough.

We talk often, text daily. At 86, he’s remarkably self-sufficient, living contentedly on an island off the coast of Maine. He requires little assistance other than in financial and legal matters. He’s always on the go. He has a “team” of friends and Gilbert the cat to keep him company.

And he’s written a memoir.

Childhood memories were hazy and entire decades blurred, so I asked him to help me piece things together, to tell me his story. Dozens of legal pads later, he painstakingly transcribed his near-illegible penmanship, writing what would become his third book.

My father’s life, I’ve learned, is an endless adventure from the depths of the sea to the vast world beyond. He’s explored the nation, piloting our family across the country in a 1957 Mercedes, and he’s seen the world through the lens of a Greyhound bus windshield. He’s traveled on ships, trains and airplanes to Europe and Scotland, South Africa and South America, Mexico and most recently, on the Trans-Canadian railway through each of that country’s provinces.

Yet, as I edit “Grateful Ned,” his 700-page soul quest, I find that in his perpetual pursuit to live a unique life, we are one. Similar passions flow through our veins like the blood that links us as father and daughter. We share a desire for travel and road trips. A mutual delight in telling stories. A passion for writing. An insatiable thirst for reading. The conscious choice to take the road less traveled.

Even now, my father continues to explore. As he delves further into the past, we both enter a new level of self-discovery. Today, his business cards brand him “EXPLORER.” His sight may grow dim, and his energy level wane, but my father will never stop exploring.

And for this, I am grateful.