Is it farfetched to think you can sense the character and life of a person simply by observing their activities for a day? Yes of course you can. The poll is closed. Consider it a corollary to the wisdom on first impressions. Let’s role play this hypothesis for a 24 hour period recently concluded. It all begins with me taking my truck in for service, then rushing to get home in time for our weekly jam sessions. Back home with time to spare, I pull my guitar out, organize my music and start practicing a few songs. The gang is usually slow to arrive, and today is no different. Nobody is here except me. Oh of course, Dad is here too. He is quietly reading his book sitting by the front window, his spot.
Curious, I text my son and my brother to check their status. They tell me, that Dad canceled today’s session. I look up from my phone over at Dad, and say,
Dad is there anything you want to tell me?
Dad looks up from his book and processes, unaware he is being tricked into a confession of guilt, through the haze of a light dose of mild, progressive dementia. There is little distinction between guilt and dementia in our house. He replies lazily, and innocently it seems,
No, I don’t think so?
I continue strumming my guitar looking lazily back at him with a dollop of frustration, through and around his guileless gaze,
You don’t think so? You canceled today’s practice while here I sit in obvious preparation for said practice, and you don’t think there is anything you might want to tell me?
Dad, scratches his head like he is trying to remember something,
What? I didn’t tell you? But you knew I had a band concert this afternoon.
This is not news.
Yes, Dad I know you have a concert at 3 o’clock, but that’s not for 5 hours! Why does that mean we can’t play at home this morning like we always do on Thursdays.
Dad goes into defense as easily as most people pour themselves a glass of water. Although in this case, I had a squirt gun aimed at him so I can understand. He protests,
But you knew we had a concert this afternoon? I don’t want you to be rushed.
Dad doesn’t want me to be rushed? His explanation, devoid of apology, comes replete with compassion and apparently selfless concern for my well-being. This is dad doing his classic dad routine; a routine he has mastered. He integrates brush off strokes with imagined color in a way that paints your protests with his own sanctitudinous glow. The masters never imagined light this way.
So I practice a little bit more, making my guitar feel only slightly useful; the poor guitars out there born to hacks like me, I know there are a lot of you and we are sorry. We really are.
So a few hours later I am packing dad into the car with his tuba, music bag and music stand for his afternoon concert, still officially two hours away. We drive out to retirement trailer park number 85, somewhere on the east side of the sleepiest third largest city in any state in the union. It’s so quiet there the quail don’t even call, they text. Just winging it here.
But a good sense of humor is exactly the medicine before venturing into retirement land. That and a piece of hard candy? And we cruise out to his concert with purpose. 3PM is an unusual time for a band concert some of you may be thinking? Well you can pick up your things and move to the front of class because you would be correct.
I drop Dad off near the biggest building on the campus and look for a parking place. Then I go inside to find dad. I am unsurprised that he is nowhere to be found. I talk to a maintenance guy who tells me he hasn’t seen him. You should know, Dad strikes quite a profile in his tuxedo designed to complement perfectly his full head of gray hair. In this land of casual, Dad in full tuxedo is pretty certain to make an impression.
But no one has seen him? Though the maintenance guys are starting to act curious about why Dad is all dressed up? When I explain about the concert, they set me straight and inform me the concert is scheduled for this evening at 7PM. This makes a lot more sense, though I am kicking myself for being an idiot and not figuring this out much earlier.
Anyway by this time a search is organized and we each take our assigned spot around the perimeter of the building, making sure all the exits are covered. Finally, somebody spots Dad on the opposite side of the building from me. We converge. The silver-haired bomber has circumnavigated the entire building in a perfectly executed, if accidental, evasive maneuver. It’s Laurel and Hardy wacky. As I get closer, he calmly informs me he has discovered the concert has been moved to 7PM that evening. Yep, he’s on it.
The day is a few hours old and I am stranded at a retirement village with my old man, the candy is sweet, and I am resisting mightily the urge to be angry, either with dad for the general screw up of the day, or probably more with myself for not bothering to check on the sketchy details. Then we discover a unique feature of this park, just in time. They have a bar and restaurant here! Happy Hour begins in 15 minutes. And we are in the double bonus bonus. They have a duo playing old country standards; Patsy Cline comes to mind. We are going to be ok.
I am not in the mood to drive back home, and then back again all over again a couple hours later. There is not even a discussion. We order a beer, the music starts, the waitress flirts with Dad, or rather, Dad is hitting on the waitress who we quickly discover is married to the bartender. I have developed a sixth sense for this sort of thing, because Dad has a sixth sense for getting into this sort of trouble.
Denise is her name. After the first beers, her husband takes over. We don’t see her again. And the afternoon is very young. In a moment of weakness I order a burger and fries. To Dad this is the usual perfect lunch, but for me it is probably the first burger in five years. And there may well be another five between this and the next one. Dry, tough, pre-cooked, it’s gross. Thank god for the fries. They were great, plus the onion rings, and 2-dollar drafts? Decadence in the trailer park. As good as the VFW!
The band is really good. It’s just a gal with a big voice and a guy with a keyboard synth. They know all of the Cline, Haggard, Wynette, Reeves, Cash classics, and the sky is so blue. And oddly, I feel like big man on campus. Until recently, I always felt out of place at these parks. Dad plays tuba in a lot of bands and usually when I show up I feel like the kid at the senior center. But at this park, all of the sudden, it hits me. I am old too! And my full mostly gray beard probably doesn’t help. There are ladies here who notice the new guy, or guys. Interesting. I have not had this sensation in a while. In a long while. Maybe I bring Dad’s tux along more often?
Here though, semi-sweet in my dark sunglasses, with my beard and my Dad to hide behind I am beginning to enjoy this afternoon. We have a couple of beers and don’t waste this free moment on our calendar. But I see Dad is fidgeting. It’s still 3 hours before tonight’s show and I know he needs to stretch and relax for a bit. I find the lounge and lead Dad there to relax. He’d been planning on setting up and waiting in the concert hall, but those performance chairs are not designed for prolonged sitting. The lounge makes a lot more sense and Dad even gets to nap for a bit. I find a shady spot to relax and enjoy the band play a full 2 and a half hour set; impressive, and perfect time for me.
As the band finishes up I scout sunset viewing positions near the pool. I could not be in better spirits. How could I expect there would be a bar? It slowly dawns on me that this messed up day, is really about as good as it gets. The day is perfect. The evening sunset is non-stop gorgeous. And the band plays on.
I check on Dad and spy him sitting alone in the hall, fully outfitted to play, his horn resting in his lap, just gazing out across the empty room. I slip through the door, and quietly take in his view across the room, or what he might see tonight if he were to look up from his music. He does not hear me, and each in our own silence we take in the moment. It is magically timeless, very touching, and we do not know it is our last time. Walking over to Dad, I squeeze his shoulder and reassure myself that all is well.
Tonight’s concert will be Dad’s 5000th performance, based on my conservative estimations. This is not an exaggeration. He has been a singer, a brass musician, a director, a soundman, a teacher, and he has two degrees in music. At 85, after playing and directing for 65 years, it is easy to calculate. Ninety shows a year is today’s standard it seems. Do the math. At this moment I can almost feel Dad savoring some of these shows.
Returning to my perch at the pool under a canopy I rejoin the afternoon entertainment. This is when Folsom Prison hits me so good, and that rendition of Stand By Your Man is beyond anything. I realize how much I am enjoying myself, and this weird idea penetrates my skull, kind of seditious like, that I could see a hella lotta the world if I downsized? If I was to get me a little unit, park it here in the winter with a good neighborhood like this, and then take it up north in the summer. Would that work? I like to garden though. And what about my chickens? But the thought is fetching, so I let it. What a sunset, under and through the clouds, the sky went through a near rainbow of glows. The thought continues to steep.
As it gets dark, I pour a last beer and continue to dream and think and dream. The only question I can never seem to answer is who makes the decisions? Because, it doesn’t seem to be me? Time relentless marches on and nobody is going to turn it back without someone making the decisions. This is the alley I am backed into. The thoughts continue to steep. One day perhaps I will be promoted?
Dad’s band finishes up, we pack him up and deliver him home successfully to suburban Tempe. Another day, another concert. And Bogie, his little schitsu is mad glad to see Dad, the two are inseparable. After the obligatory treat the dog has trained Dad to grant, they tramp together up the stairs to their cave. Such as it ever was.
Next day I hike in my usual haunts, but the day is different. Heading back, I crest a saddle where the trail forks, either going up or veering right and heading down. Out of nowhere, a nymph dances across the trail in front of me heading up the mountain to the other side. I say out of nowhere? That’s not exactly true. Hiking below, I had glimpsed her graceful form almost dancing across the ridge. Now she almost merges with my path. She is on all toes as she gracefully glides up the next mountain, running, flying maybe? It did not feel she was exerting any energy even though it is straight up hill? Who is this magical ballerina? She continues her glide up and over the hill I am climbing, well in front of me. I pick up my pace as she disappears over the hill. I do not find her this day.
Hiking up the same mountain again the next morning I come upon my Roadrunner friend, some 10 or maybe 20 yards in front of me. This time she is not coy. She stays to play it seems. And she is a he. First he scatters off the crest of the hill at my surprise. He had been on lookout maybe? I think I have lost him. But I freeze for several minutes, scanning the hillside to catch sight of him again. My jaw drops. He returns to the crest of the hill right where he had been. He knows I am here. Perhaps he recognizes me? I am here every day. Then I hear the sound of a dog whining, a begging, even pleading sort of whine.
Where is it coming from? I pan the horizon looking for a dog closing in. That would be terrible, ruining my moment with perhaps the most solitary and reclusive of desert birds.
I re-focus on my friend. I hear the sounds again. I watch as he puffs his glottal out rhythmically. The whining sound returns, a cycle of high to low pitched glissandos. I am looking right at him and still I think I am hearing a dog. The pattern repeats for maybe 10 minutes. Finally he takes flight gliding down the slope 100 yards away, dropping out of sight. He had a beautiful red spur, almost a tattoo, like a sideburn of lightning.
I say he? And I said she. I do not know. This is the first time she has taken me in to her confidence, even as brief as these moments. I have never been granted a private audience. It is the first time I have heard the roadrunner’s call. Life is performance. We are the audience even as we think we are performers or directors. Spread your wings and open your eyes. Listen. Breathe. Have faith. Performance is less about practice and more about being present. It is not as easy as it sounds.