I was an Army brat–which basically means that I was a brat who had a parent in the military. Dad was a 30-year+ career Army officer. We lived on base, and I dutifully answered the phone, “Colonel Kisling’s residence, Chris speaking.” “Sir” and “Ma’am” were drilled into our vocabulary along with a healthy respect for authority and rules.
Periodically, Dad would have to travel to another installation on TDY—militaryspeak for “Temporary Duty.” I remember the ritual of watching him pack on the night before a trip. It was an efficient process: the hard-shell suitcase lying open on the bed, contents neatly arranged—uniforms, t shirts, boxers, Dopp kit. Everything was strapped down in its place and there was no sitting on the suitcase to get it closed. He was always done packing early. I would go to bed and he would disappear in the predawn darkness before I woke up.
Later, after he retired, he would also travel regularly—most often to Montana, a majestic land he grew to love. A couple of times a year he would pack up and fly to Billings, where he would meet his brother Dave and they would head out to the familiar, slightly musty cabin in the woods on the East Boulder River. There, they would spend a couple of idyllic, bourbon-infused weeks of fishing, relaxing, and joking. For these trips, the packing process was not quite as efficient. More stuff to take, more decisions to make. It dragged out, and he was never done early.
Tonight I sit in a nursing home on the Texas coast and watch my father, now 86, packing for another journey—his last one. By one measure, it’s his most inefficient process yet. He seems to spend a lot of time lost in dream-filled reverie as he mulls over his list. On the other hand, his eventual choices about what to take are even more conservative than in his military days. He’s packing light this time. In fact, it’s really more of an unpacking. He’s unpacking the decades, memories, family members, appetite, weight, decorum, and any concern about the outside world.
I find myself unpacking along with him. I clung tightly when we started this process. The air was saturated with poignant memory. I would stroke his cheek, or look at old pictures, or play favorite songs from our family’s years together, and the tears came easily and abundantly. But, through the grace of time, I find myself holding him and the stuff of our shared history much more lightly these days. It’s less about what was and more about what he needs now. There will be plenty of time to grieve later, I reckon, should I need it.
As the various pieces of his life fall softly from his open hands, there is one thing he clings to. Curiously, he is persistently obsessed with meeting up with his younger brother Peter. He complains of waiting on the phone for hours trying to get through to him. (There is no phone in his room.) He wants to borrow Peter’s motorcycle. Dad has never really ridden one, and he says he wants Pete to show him the ropes, so he can decide if he wants to get one of his own. He talks about heading West with Pete. Said he saw him in the hall of the nursing home just the other day.
Hearing Dad talk like that, it’s easy to attach a deeper significance to the words, associated with his imminent transition–and I’m all about taking the easy route these days. Particularly since Uncle Pete passed away from pancreatic cancer in the Pacific Northwest more than a decade ago.
Huh. Maybe that’s it—the reason for the especially light packing for this particular trip. Because a motorcycle just doesn’t have room for a lot of extra stuff. I expect that one day soon I will wake up and find that, once again, he has slipped away in the predawn darkness, though not on a plane this time. Just he and Pete–a couple of boys with their toys–and the open road. And I’ll face west with a smile–and maybe a tear or two–and wave as I whisper, “Safe travels, Daddy. Have fun.”