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Archive for February, 2012

Valentine’s Day

A duffel bag of clothes, an old guitar, a section of obituaries torn from the Sunday Times. This is what it takes to say goodbye to my father.

In a way, the goodbye started more than 10 years ago when I found a bottle of St. John’s Wort in his medicine cabinet. For a man too hardy to believe in doctors, this was a startling admission of vulnerability. A label on the back of the bottle offered hopefully that the pills might prevent memory loss. The security of grasping at straws. He was a licensed architect who had memorized the values of trigonometric functions and carried an encyclopedic knowledge of building codes in his head. And now he owned a bottle of unproven medicine—something you could get without consulting a doctor or talking to your family. It was the first logical step in a quiet, private battle with dementia. I closed the medicine cabinet and let it remain private.

Dad was more than an architect. He was an accomplished athlete, a musician, an artist, a mechanic. He was the closest thing to a Renaissance Man I have ever known. And he was funny, which is the best skill of all at the dinner table. And most important, he was a good father.

So tonight, one more time, I will pull out the old guitar and play the same songs he used to sing to me when I was a child. And he will fall asleep to them as I used to fall asleep. And then I’ll pull out the torn sheet of obituaries—a page of love letters on this Valentine’s Day—and try to learn from them how you say goodbye to someone you love beyond words.

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Department of Languishing

I dreamt the other night that I was in the passenger seat while my son was driving slowly into a parked car. No breaks, no deceleration. Just crunching, slow crunching. First we pushed through the bumper, then then trunk, and finally we began to push through the backseat. I wondered when he would stop. My mouth was agape, but the only sound coming out was snoring. This is the nightmare of a parent whose first child has just earned his first driver’s license.

On December 29, after months of practice drives, tedious traffic safety classes, and written tests about school zones and speed limits, our son William joined the millions of adults who have passed through one of American life’s major milestones: A day at the Department of Licensing.

Within fifteen minutes of arriving, he had already taken and passed his driving test. Now the only thing between him and a driver’s license was a handful of DOL employees. But armed with their clever weapons of bureaucracy, they were able to hold an entire room of people at bay for hours. Want to stand in line for a license? First you need to get a number. Want to get a number? First you need to stand in a different line. A line for a number for a line. And although they accept checks, they won’t accept debit cards. I scolded a clerk about this and was kindly shushed by my wife. Scolding, I had hoped, would be an amusing way to pass the time.

The wait turned out to be two-and-a-half hours. Fidgety people sat on hard plastic seats, staring at their smartphones. Staring at the floor. Staring at the number counter that never changed. I went outside for a while and read a journal by a British woman who rode a horse around India in the 1800s while her husband shot at the natives. My wife and I walked next door to the Mexican grocer where they sold candles in tall narrow glasses with pictures of saints and skeletons. They also sold pig’s feet and tripe, gallons of lard, and of course Mexican Coke.  I looked for a candle with the Patron Saint of Tedium. I ended up with a Coke.

William waited next door for his number to be called. And when it finally was called, he went up to the counter, had his photo taken, and walked away with a real Washington State driver’s license.

So now he does not need his parents. He can drive anywhere he wants, whenever he wants. Humptulips or Hackensack. He can choose a college and drive to it. He can drive across the border and disappear. He’s free.

The Department of Licensing is, I think, still too efficient. Someone needs to add a few more layers of bureaucracy. Whatever it takes to slow things down.

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