I’ve never thought of myself as strong, maybe because no one else ever has, but I also never thought I’d be sitting in a dimly lit grocery store parking lot three weeks before Christmas with my Dad who was just diagnosed with ALS talking about our very short future. We sit, waiting for my Mom to come out with dog biscuits and cookies, I help him light his cigarette, and I turn off the car; he is too tired to go into the store. The music seems to idle down slowly, as my seat heat leaves me once again cold. He clears his throat and holds back choked up tears as he begins, “when my Dad died, I didn’t handle it well,” I’m already crying, silent tears roll down my face in rapid succession. I’ve been so good at hiding them, but in this moment, I can’t hold them back. “I shut everyone out, and I just wanted to tell you that no one can tell you how, but you have to figure out how to deal with it, your own way.” A grocery store logo sits in the background, tears continue to well in my eyes, and everything is neon red grocery store light and blurry, watery eyed tears. He tells me the only thing that gives him his strength lately is my happiness, the time we have left, and how happy it makes both of us to sit together and watch Hallmark movies. I see my Mom walk out into the cold, her fur coat pulled up around her face; she looks lost. I start the car and wipe my tears away. He grabs my hand and holds it the rest of the way home.
I remember a few years ago, he slipped when we were ice skating and landed on his head, the blood covered the ice so quickly and I panicked. He screamed for me to look at how deep the gash was, and on a snowy February day I kicked off my ice skates and ran the quarter mile from the pond to my house in just my socks to call for help. The snow felt like it was cutting at my ankles, and my feet felt numb from the cold. I feel that same sensation of running and panic now.
Today is supposed to be the first snow fall of the year. I wake up early and try to race against it. I have to get the leaves picked up before the blanket of snow tucks them in. Jim is in the winter of his life, and I tuck him in; I pull cozy blankets up and tuck in his sides, and make sure the corners cover his ears; for him, every day is cold. The busy hum of the leaf blower fills my ears as it vibrates against my back. Three layers of clothing doesn’t stop the incessant shaking. Jim brings me out coffee and cookies to reward my hard work. I look up at a house that now needs new paint and remember the summer we painted it. I danced on the ladder and listened to Vampire Weekend that whole summer, scraping and painting. Every morning Jim and I would climb out my upstair window and drink blueberry coffee on the roof of the porch and talk about the boy I had a crush on that day. Life was simpler then. We were on top of the world; now I carry the weight of the world – no, just the fifty pounds of Husqvarna leaf blower on my back. I wonder if passerby wonder where he is now; albeit I have his eyes and his stubbornness, but every car seems to slow down on the bend and look for him. He sits on the porch, his hands too cold, and muscleless.
A few years ago I was driving to pick up my brother, and I stopped at a stop sign, only to have a big red truck come crashing into the back of my car. I remember looking in the rear view mirror and just watching as it came crashing in, knowing that as slow as the moment felt, time was moving too fast for me to react, for me to stop it. I screamed. He hit me. It’s a psychological thing, that we see cars as an extension of ourselves. I hit my head on the door jam and my eyelids felt heavy as I tried to open them. Out of nowhere, there he was. He happened to be on his way home from work; he said he knew something was wrong – the red neon lights. He helped me climb into the front seat of his car and he held my hand the whole way to the hospital.
Tonight, I drive home from work, exhausted. My back hurts and I’m left with a phantom limb where the leaf blower extended earlier in the day. I made it through the day. I sit at a red light and cry. I look around and see a Christmas tree stand with globe shaped lights. I hurry home to him, as we sit on the couch I ask him what I am supposed to do with my life; he tells me whatever I want. We watch a lot of Hallmark movies now. I couldn’t figure out why he liked them so much, at first, and after countless movies I finally figured it out. Although the plot lines differ, barely, one thing is always the same; in every movie, the main character the charismatic, charming, beautiful, but a little bit lost girl, the one who gets her dream job and the dream guy, and the dream life, they all have the same thing in common, they all have lost a parent. I think I’m the main character in every Hallmark movie for him, the heartbroken lost girl who still loves Christmas even though her Dad used to and is gone now, the girl who chooses to believe in love, despite loss. He squeezes my hand when they talk about how much it hurt to lose someone they loved, and at the end of the movie, he takes his hand and holds it up to his heart. I look at him, holding his heart and my hand, a dimly lit Christmas tree in the background and all is red, green, blue, orange neon light and blurry eyed tears.